Gabriele Muccino, the writer and director of "The Last Kiss," is a tyro who wants to revive the spirit and style of the old masters -- postwar giants of Italian movie comedy like Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Pietro Germi and Mario Monicelli -- and in "Last Kiss," he almost does.
His film, a big hit in Italy, is an ensemble comedy-drama about four buddies in their early 30s who try to dodge maturity as it begins to ensnare them. It's done with mucho gusto, lots of style and energy.
At its best, it has the robust feel of a '50s-'60s classic like Germi's "Divorce, Italian Style" or Monicelli's "Big Deal on Madonna Street." The subjects may be as vintage as commedia dell'arte: infidelity, unrequited love, fakery, self-delusion, domestic conflicts and, most of all, the age-old male (and occasionally female) desire for one last fling. But while "Last Kiss" may strike some as a calculated crowd-pleaser, it's cleverly calculated, perceptive and often quite funny -- and a bit darker than it may first appear.
It also has a terrific three-generational ensemble cast headed by Stefano Accorsi and Giovanna Mezzogiorno (daughter of the late actor Vittorio Mezzogiorno) as the young, troubled couple Carlo and Giulia, and Stefania Sandrelli, a real icon of Italian cinema (and the co-star of "Divorce, Italian Style") as Giulia's roving mother Anna.
The title "The Last Kiss" ("L'Ultimo Bacio") refers to the last reckless liaison of Carlo, after a friend's wedding reception and his discovery that Giulia, his live-in girlfriend, is pregnant -- a revelation that helps throw insecure 30-year-old Carlo into a clandestine affair with a ravishing teenager (Martina Stella). But the title also alludes to the last desperate grabs at "freedom" of Carlo's three male buddies: casual super-stud Alberto (Marco Cocci), henpecked malcontent husband Adriano (Giorgio Pasotti) and distraught rejected beau Paolo (Claudio Santamaria) -- as well as that of Anna, so perturbed at becoming a grandma that she plunges into ill-advised amore herself.
The wedding reception, probably the best single scene in "Last Kiss," sets the robust, lively tone for the whole movie. Muccino whirls his camera through the crowd, following first one character, then another, finally introducing us to almost everybody. It's an Altmanesque hive of high-living family and friends, buzzing with a pleasant thrum of vino-soaked hyperactivity. At the center of it all, catching the audience's eye almost as much as she does Carlo's, is frisky blond high school student Francesca (Stella), whose smile and eyes are genuinely dazzling.
Muccino is setting us up. What he's playing with here is the essential selfishness of the Italian middle-class -- their impossible dreams and fatal compromises. Like most of the characters in this film, Carlo and Giulia have lived rather comfortable, undemanding lives without having to face many serious crises.
For an essentially comic film, "The Last Kiss" has moments that are actually full of angst and pain -- many involving Paolo, who is brilliantly and fervently played by Santamaria. Each of the guys is romantically dysfunctional: Alberto, who keeps running through an endless succession of one-night stands; Adriano, who has never adjusted to fatherhood or his wife Livia (Sabrina Impacciatore); and Paolo because he's madly in love with a woman who's utterly indifferent to him -- and because his father is dying and a decision looms about whether Paolo should commit himself to the family religious-artifact business.
The three come up with a crazy idea: ditching everything, buying a camper and hitting the road. More crazily still, they actually try to put this daffy plan into action. (It's the movie's least convincing notion.) Muccino uses this mad dream as a symbolic device to ridicule the chums' refusal to grow up, their last grasp at youthful dreams that are fading fast -- and are almost gone for Anna, who is in her 50s.
Back in 1961, the actress who plays Anna, Sandrelli, played the seductive Sicilian girl who inflamed Marcello Mastroianni and drove him into a unique severance from his wife in Germi's "Divorce, Italian Style." The last shot of Sandrelli covertly playing toesies with another man on Mastroianni's yacht was one of the most talked-about movie climaxes of that era. And the last sequence of "The Last Kiss" is obviously Muccino's version of that shot.
The comparison, in fact, shows what's lacking in "The Last Kiss." Compared to the postwar classics, it's a tamer movie, less startling or explosive.
Still, even the attempt is welcome. "The Last Kiss" was a huge Italian box-office hit, and it also took five Italian Oscars (or David di Donatello awards) as well as the audience prize at Sundance. Some critics have even complained since about Muccino's canny popular touch and his ability to grab an audience, as if amusing people and making them laugh were a sell-out. But the populist desire to please is part of the film's comic knack, and though Muccino is trying to be wise about the necessary compromises of married life, I don't think he's really endorsing a simplistic acceptance of conventional lives.
He makes fun of these four guys -- and, to a lesser extent, Anna -- not so much because he feels any revolt is silly, but because he feels these particular adulterous and lazy rebellions are foolish and selfish. You have to grow up, the movie suggests, and you should try to make a marriage work -- but the options here are narrower than they were for Germi's and Monicelli's generation. The movie ends with a seeming coda and celebration of bourgeois married life, which it then detonates with a playful last wink. That last shot proves Muccino really is a child of the postwar comics; darker than he seems, he can't resist a final poke at our great expectations.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"The Last Kiss" ("L'Ultimo Bacio")
Directed and written by Gabriele Muccino; photographed by Marcello Montarsi; edited by Claudio Di Mauro; production designed by Eugenia F. di Napoli; music by Paulo Buonvino; produced by Domenico Procacci. A THINKFilm release; opens Friday. (In Italian; English subtitled.) Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: R (language, sexuality and some drug use).
Carlo -- Stefano Accorsi
Giulia -- Giovanna Mezzogiorno
Anna -- Stefania Sandrelli
Alberto -- Marco Cocci
Marco -- Pierfrancesco Favino
Livia -- Sabrina Impacciatore
Adriano -- Giorgio Pasotti Paolo -- Claudio Santamaria
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.