Damned If He Does

One infidelity enjoyably complicates four interconnected lives.

JUST A KISS

directed by Fisher Stevens

opens Oct. 4 at Uptown

ROTOMATION, THE PROCESS of digitally animating live-action images, isn't all that new to independent film (see Waking Life). Nor is the "parallel lives" plot device, in which one pivotal event splits a character's life into two wildly divergent possible courses (see Sliding Doors, Passion of Mind). Although none of the above titles made a dent at the box office, the romantic fantasy Just A Kiss brazenly employs both these features and, remarkably, makes it all work.

This is due not to the movie's ingrained gimmickry so much as the appeal of watching callow urbanites actually realize why their lives are imploding. Credit screenwriter/co-star Patrick Breen and director Fisher Stevens for uniquely detailing the quirky, often raunchy escapades of a handsome circle of N.Y.C. friends. That's "friends," lowercase, not Friends.

The film's title—a denial—refers to an infidelity that sparks a spiral of comic self-destruction within the group, but Kiss goes deeper, examining the nuances of variously decaying relationships. When smarmy commercial director Dag (Ron Eldard) succumbs to a European fling with fragile ballerina Rebecca (Marley Shelton), he alienates his stable, Perfectly Fine Girlfriend Halley (Kyra Sedgwick) as well as his best friend Peter (Breen), an actor who happens to be the ballerina's passive paramour.

A lesser farce would've been satisfied with poking fun at Dag's travails, but Kiss efficiently deconstructs the entire quartet's ill-advised attempts at reconciliation after his affair is revealed. Rotomation is utilized regularly, but subtly, to identify physical signifiers during key decisions: the keys Rebecca offers a furious Halley when she tries to move out of Dag's but can't find a place to stay; the unpredictable eyes of Dag's booty calls; the sleeping pills one character might see as an easy way out.

NONE OF THESE misadventures would work as well as they do without comeback kid Marisa Tomei as the catalyst. As Paula, a psychotic bowling-alley attendant crushed out on Peter's hilariously Patton-esque "Peanut Butter Eagle" commercial alter ego, Tomei dismantles the entire cast simply to acquire him. Clearly, a wild card like Paula never would've entered the picture had Dag remained faithful. One fateful transgression and . . . well, you get the moral. Luckily, the epilogue's cheerfully redemptive "What if he didn't" scenario is entirely rewarding. Believe what ending you like. This ain't Neil LaBute; there's no need for permanent suffering.

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