3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
“In Search of a Midnight Kiss” is both a dirt-cheap, black and white indie about struggling slackers and a feature-length first date, like Kevin Smith's “Clerks” meets Richard Linklater's “Before Sunrise” (with which “Kiss” even shares a producer). It also presents the stark beauty of a big metropolis in gleaming highlights and deep lowlights, like Woody Allen's “Manhattan.” It also takes that hip, contrasted palette and pairs it with hip, ponderous dialogue, like Jim Jarmusch's “Coffee and Cigarettes.” It also draws an unexpected, ultimately unfulfilled love that occurs briefly but, presumably, changes those involved forever, like John Carney's “Once” (and a bazillion more titles). In other words, nearly everything here has been done before somewhere else, right down to the shot of a dripping faucet during the weighty afterglow of an inevitable sex scene. Writer/director Alex Holdridge doesn't take enough steps to make all the familiar, borrowed elements of his film feel like its own but he does manage to add enough romance, humor and beauty to keep you willingly eavesdropping on his story of a modern match made in movie rip-off heaven.
Something new about “Kiss” is that it might just be the first date movie made directly for and about participants of today's online social networking craze. Proving just how deep platforms and programs like e-mail, MySpace, Facebook, AOL Instant Messenger, Adobe Photoshop, and CraigsList have penetrated popular consciousness, characters in the film are seen either discussing or using all of them within the first few scenes. (Specifically, these parts feel like they're as current as what's on screen can get without being a live feed.) All that technology is, essentially, just a new avenue for an age-old story: It's December 31; do you know who your New Year's Eve date will be? An intertitle that's shown before the opening credits claims that between Christmas and New Year's, activity on these electronic sites spikes a whopping 300 percent. Wilson (Scoot McNairy), an aspiring screenwriter who's just had a terrible year after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend, becomes part of that statistic when he posts a desperate, last-minute personal ad on CraigsList under the guidance and recommendation of his wiseass best friend, Jacob (Brian McGuire). Wilson's first callback is Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a strong-willed, eccentric actress who agrees to meet him and decide whether he's worth hanging out with 'til the ball drops.
What transpires from there is what gives the film its heart, as Wilson and Vivian ease into the groove of each other's company. She's got a harsh approach to life, aware of her beauty (like a vamped-up Kirsten Dunst) and what she wants and quick to toss a biting witticism at anything that stands in her way. He's a sensitive, reluctant, underachiever who's held back by his own fears and the pain of a failed relationship. But when the two are together, they eventually begin bringing out the best in one another, he opening up and gaining confidence and she revealing a soul as sensitive as his underneath all her armor. Their rambling exchanges are often funny, human, and honest and are the only instances in which the film touches true originality. They talk of Frank Warren's PostSecret books, an ongoing social experiment in which strangers mail in postcards with their guiltiest confessions, and begin sharing confessions of their own. They talk of past lovers, his long gone but certainly not forgotten and hers a freshly crushed, walking cliché of a redneck stalker whose lovesick voicemails repeatedly play on the soundtrack. Their romance peaks at the one hour mark, just after he takes the last $100 out of his bank account to buy her dinner and just before they head off to their party destination. (It's the moment in which the two actually feel like a couple.) Unfortunately, it then begins to slip, invaded by the rest of the movie, and never really regains traction.
A film this simple needs a razor-sharp, inventive script to keep it afloat, a fact to which both “Clerks” and “Before Sunrise” can attest. Holdridge achieves this only a little more than half the time and lets what he knows, rather than what he feels, guide him the rest of the way. We've seen the nice-guy-with-the-crass-buddy routine over and over since Jon Favreau made it cool again in Doug Liman's “Swingers” in 1996. We've seen artists struggle to make a living since Jonathan Larson made “La Boheme” cool again with the Broadway debut of “Rent” that same year. We've seen Harry meet Sally enough times to put Kleenex out of business. It would be different if Holdridge transcended these familiarities and gave them a different life but, more often than not, he doesn't. I will give the director major points for choosing black and white cinematography, an aesthetic decision that some camps will probably label as a trendy ploy to draw in audiences. That may be true, but it works for me. Too seldom is this glorious look (in which blacks are black and whites are white and everything in between shimmers) used in contemporary film. It invariably adds to the romance of “Kiss,” not only between the two lovers, but between them and the city in which they live. (Watch for a great-looking scene inside the Orpheum Theatre on South Broadway, an idyllic montage of lost shoes, and, quite simply, the blinking glow of L.A.'s skyline at night.)
In the midst of the first act, a moody woman is overheard likening a recently deceased neighbor to the coming calendar change: “Out with the old, in with the new,” she says. Holdridge's film, while great to look at and intermittently rich, has too much old and not enough new to include so telling a line.