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Movie Review

If Only 'Just a Kiss' Managed to Be Something More


"Just a Kiss" starts, fittingly enough, with a kiss and the words that go with it. "This is going to be one of those terrible mistakes you can't take back," says the man. Adds the woman, "Is there any other kind?"

As beginnings go, this is not bad, but the problem with "Just a Kiss" is that it is all beginnings without the benefit of a real ending. As written by co-star Patrick Breen and directed by actor Fisher Stevens, it's a film that resorts to playing glib games with structure to disguise the fact that it can't manage to put together a manageable or fulfilling plot.

Breen adapted the script from his own off-Broadway play about the tangled dance of courtship between bright and attractive New Yorkers for whom fidelity is not an option.

As a stage and screen veteran, Breen knows how to write the kind of slick, pleased-with-itself dialogue that performers can attack with relish. And Stevens directs in a noticeably actor-friendly way.

But though the cast ends up looking good, the film's unwillingness or inability to have things add up hurts everyone's efforts.

"Just a Kiss" puts its energy into introducing its people, setting them up as they are now and as they were when they met their current significant others. The gang of four who kiss initially involves includes:

* Dag (Ron Eldard), perhaps the only director of TV commercials ever to be named after a former U.N. secretary-general, an incorrigible womanizer who seems more helpless than conniving;

* Halley (Kyra Sedgwick), a no-nonsense videographer who lives with Dag and is trying to get him to shape up emotionally;

* Peter (writer Breen), Dag's best friend, an insecure actor who has made a name for himself playing the Peanut Butter Eagle in one of Dag's commercials;

* Rebecca (Marley Shelton), Peter's super-fragile girlfriend, a gifted dancer with a savage choreographer (Zoe Caldwell) for a mother and a weakness for suicide attempts.

That opening-scene kiss--between, of all people, Dag and Rebecca--is a kiss that leads to multiple complications and eventually brings three other characters into the picture: an articulate cellist (Taye Diggs), a stewardess (Sarita Choudhury) who believes "moviegoing should be a life-or-death experience," and a bowling alley bartender (Marisa Tomei, the film's liveliest performer) who doubles as a dominatrix during her time off.

If you're curious to know even a tiny bit about how these people interact, you're out of luck, because "Just a Kiss" uses one of those alternate-realities scenarios that makes it difficult to say whether something actually took place or not.

This kind of thing has been done before, most recently in "Sliding Doors" with Gwyneth Paltrow and most profoundly in two films by the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, "Blind Chance" and "The Double Life of Veronique." Here, its use seems to be mainly as a safety valve for filmmakers who aren't able to manage anything beyond constructing amusing vignettes.

Also without a discernible purpose is the film's sporadic use of an animation technique called rotomation. This hip name notwithstanding, rotomation is simply the computerized version of a venerable process called rotoscoping, which works off live-action images. Its appearance in "Just a Kiss," though nominally intended to highlight emotion, comes off as no more than a gimmick.

MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual images and language. Times guidelines: somewhat graphic sexual encounters, including sadomasochistic ones.

'Just a Kiss'

Ron Eldard...Dag

Kyra Sedgwick...Halley

Patrick Breen...Peter

Marley Shelton...Rebecca

Zoe Caldwell...Jessica

Marisa Tomei...Paula

Taye Diggs...Andre

Sarita Choudhury...Colleen

Released by Paramount Classics. Director Fisher Stevens. Producer Matthew Rowland. Executive producer John Penotti. Screenplay Patrick Breen. Cinematographer Terry Stacey. Editor Gary Levy. Music Sean Dinsmore. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

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