Movie review, 'Just a Kiss'

EntertainmentMarley SheltonRon EldardMoviesKyra SedgwickMarisa TomeiFisher Stevens

Men are only as faithful as their options, or so comedian Bill Maher philosophized. Post-feminist thought, in a world of equality, would suggest that the same is true of women. Director Fisher Stevens' "Just a Kiss" delves into both assumptions without making its audience flinch at the state of humanity.

Ron Eldard stars as commercial producer Dag (pronounced "dog," after United Nations poet Dag Hammerskjold), a player of the singles scene currently in love with, and living with, videographer Halley (Kyra Sedgwick).

Halley's idyllic romance skips a beat, however, when it comes out that Dag has cheated on her with Rebecca (Marley Shelton), the Prozac-popping paramour of his best friend, Peter (Patrick Breen).

The rest of "Just a Kiss" sifts through the details of the encounter, and all that follows, in search of an answer to the question: Is Dag a dog or a poet? The answer is obvious after the first few frames, but it's still a trip worth taking. The lighter of two time-jumping, sex-and-suicide films to debut this month (the first was Roger Avary's pitch-black "The Rules of Attraction"), "Just a Kiss" tilts toward the surreal with bits of "rotomation," the technique used to animate live action, last seen in Richard Linklater's "Waking Life."

This technique is used to "spike" the reality of the film, according to the production notes. But the rotomation in "Just a Kiss" is more distracting than enriching. Dialogue and a zany unpredictability ratchet up the senses, keeping us engaged when the action turns gimmicky. Even the clock-bending editing does more to define the disjointed characters than the odd animated eye or tweaked scenery.

Marisa Tomei turns in a blitzkrieg performance as the wildcard Paula, a perky angel of death obsessed with Peter (an actor best known for his peanut butter spots). In a universe of already unstable characters, Paula pushes each into comically dark visions of possible consequences.

"Sometimes I see the most beautiful thing and I have to have it," Paula says. "I don't want to take care of it or own it or love it. I just want to take off all its clothes. ? "

Her wrecking-ball approach to morality short-circuits an otherwise pedestrian love story and raises "Just a Kiss" into an absurdist "Heathers"-like comedy about love and fate.

Taye Diggs and Sarita Choudhury round out an ensemble cast in which everyone seems to sleep with everyone else, dodging the consequences of such actions until chaos sweeps through their emotional lives. Lovers without personal boundaries, director Stevens seems to say, are people who substitute manufactured drama for love and pass intimacy for trust. These are points worth pondering, and for the most part Stevens glides through on some solid performances and witty dialogue. But had he set up some boundaries for himself and not given in to the fashion of new technology, we might be more focused on his characters than their gleaming, animated eyeballs.

3 stars (out of 4) "Just a Kiss"
Directed by Fisher Stevens; written by Patrick Breen; photographed by Terry Stacey; edited by Gary Levy; production design by Happy Massee; produced by Matthew H. Rowland. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday, Oct. 18. Running time: 1:29. Rated R (strong sexual images and language).
Dag - Ron Eldard
Halley - Kyra Sedgwick
Pete - Patrick Breen
Paula - Marisa Tomei
Rebecca - Marley Shelton Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.

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