3 stars (out of four)

An unmistakable air of melancholy hovers over "The Last Kiss," and it's not just because Zach Braff has finally achieved the ultimate hangdog expression. While director Tony Goldwyn's story of temptation, loss and love (lifted almost frame for frame from Italy's 2001 hit "L'ultimo Baccio") is ultimately redemptive, it takes us on kind of a bleak journey--certainly bleaker than anything suggested by the film's ubiquitous and upbeat promos. It's also a far better movie than one might gather, a really nice surprise, in fact.

Braff is Michael, a man-child teetering on the brink of his 30th birthday and staring down the barrel of adulthood. That's how he sees it, anyway. We don't know much about Michael's past, but it seems reasonably clear that he is the poster child for a particular kind of extended adolescence. No major traumas or tragedies have shaped or accelerated his emotional progress, and so he, surrounded by a group of like-minded buddies, has simply drifted through life, only to arrive, with a sickening thump, on the doorstep of what he calls "Freakout Time."

This thump is precipitated by the announcement that his girlfriend, Jenna (played with preternatural good humor by the newly ubiquitous Jacinda Barrett), is pregnant. And while this news makes Michael happy, in a dazed kind of way, it also throws him for a rather spectacular loop, along with his plans to remain unattached and ironic for the rest of his life. Michael's confusion is deepened by the arrival of Kim, a younger woman (which makes her just barely legal, I know). Played with a kind of ditzy insouciance by Rachel Bilson, Kim develops a lightning-fast crush on Michael that swerves dangerously toward "Fatal Attraction" territory before righting itself and evaporating without further ado (or explanation), which isn't so much a negative as it is momentarily confusing.

Luckily for Michael, his buddies, who include Chris (Casey Affleck) and Izzy (Michael Weston, whom many will recognize from his creepy turn as a carjacker on "Six Feet Under"), are on hand to join him in asking the big questions: How do you know you're with the right person? What is true happiness? How do you keep things interesting in the bedroom after you've been together for five years and are having a baby together? Happily, Affleck and Weston (and Braff) are enormously likable, so the aforementioned navel-gazing and tooth-gnashing provide a philosophical heft not evident in most movies about growing up white and middle class.

Jenna's mother, played by the incomparable Blythe Danner, is also a bit put off by the pregnancy news, but her mixed reaction is rooted in something darker: She is jealous of her daughter's joy, and harbors a seething resentment toward her emotionally distant husband (Tom Wilkinson). They live in the same town (Madison, Wis.) as their daughter, which creates a nice opportunity for intergenerational discord.

There's another very prominent, occasionally overbearing character in this movie, but it's invisible and its presence is never acknowledged. Give up? It's the soundtrack, silly! This collection is already selling well, with a few tracks, most notably "Chocolate" by Snow Patrol, clearly destined for anthem status. We know from Braff's previous soundtrack experience (he won a Grammy in 2004 for "Garden State") that he considers the scoring process akin to delicate brain surgery. Or a high school flirtation: When it was time to score the movie, Braff presented director Goldwyn with half a dozen CDs loaded with his latest musical obsessions. And then they went to prom together. It was awesome. But seriously, the soundtrack is uniformly strong.

Goldwyn, an actor/director whose most notable turn behind the camera was 1999's "A Walk on the Moon," a similarly dreamy meditation on the meaning of fidelity, has crafted a genuinely moving exploration of relationships and what it takes to truly commit ourselves to another person. Screenwriter Paul Haggis ("Crash," "Million Dollar Baby") has, perhaps unsurprisingly, penned a much more depressing, and emotionally resonant, ending than the scene that closes the Italian original. More important, Haggis and Goldwyn have created something we haven't seen in some time: a smart, witty, sexy take on the perils of becoming an adult.

jreaves@tribune.com

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'The Last Kiss''

Directed by Tony Goldwyn; screenplay by Paul Haggis; photographed by Tom Stern; edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin; music by Michael Penn; production design by Dan Leigh; produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Andre Lamal and Marcus Viscidi. A DreamWorks Pictures and Lakeshore Entertainment release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: R (for sexuality, nudity and language).

Michael - Zach Braff

Jenna - Jacinda Barrett

Chris - Casey Affleck

Kim - Rachel Bilson

Izzy - Michael Weston

Anna - Blythe Danner

Stephen - Tom Wilkinson