"In Search of a Midnight Kiss" manages the difficult task of making Los Angeles appear more like Woody Allen's "Manhattan" than seemed possible. The city keeps a lot of the desolate character that movies always seem to find when they hole up in downtown LA. But a swoony kind of urban surrealism flourishes while its two main characters prattle and promenade across this universe with an obvious chill in the air and no redemptive sunlight.
The writer and director Alex Holdridge has set his cheap, disarming black-and-white romance on the last night of some distant year and has excavated a seemingly new city from an old and, cinematically speaking, shopworn one.
He's done other tinkering, too. "Midnight Kiss" is a romantic comedy with film noir shadows. Wilson (Scoot McNairy), a depressed video store clerk and struggling screenwriter from Austin, Texas, whips up a Craigslist personals ad ("Misanthrope seeks misanthrope," it begins) and gets a call from Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a bossy blonde with bangs, who's from Texas, too. She's photographed with enough initial mystery to make you think Barbara Stanwyck might be on the other end of the line. On the phone, referring to Wilson's use of "misanthrope," Vivian says, "I had to look it up. You know, it sounds pretty intense. I guess for today that's me."
And so begins a New Year's Eve of these two getting to know each other. They walk and ruminate, sip and eat. They talk about their hopes and dreams and pubic hair. They connect, disconnect, and reconnect. Wilson seems miserable but stubbornly optimistic. Vivian seems endearingly certifiable. It's "Before Sunrise" or "Before Sunset" with a day of medication skipped.
Holdridge's apparent gift as a director resides in his conflation of the mundane and the somewhat profound. He's obviously been on some first dates and knows the way a good - no, miraculous - one can wend its way into adventure. In the real world, that transformation takes a few nights and days. In romantic comedy, 24 hours will do. But even as romantic comedy, "Midnight Kiss" moves sideways. It's a work of old-school American independent moviemaking that falls somewhere between Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" and Kevin Smith's "Clerks" - not just because of the lack of both color and money, but because its maker, on the one hand, exults in the atmospherically rich oddness of romantic possibility, and on the other, finds certain types of crudeness really funny.
The quick symphony of locked lips that opens the movie while Wilson introduces himself is a hat-tip to "Manhattan." But Holdridge appears to have already figured out how to pay deeper tribute to Allen. A sequence in which Wilson is caught pleasing himself to a Photoshopped picture of his roommate's girlfriend isn't it. The movie and its smart observations keep threatening to get away, never more so than when the phone rings - it's Vivian's brand-new ex-boyfriend, who seems as unstable as she sometimes does. He threatens to burn some of her stuff, and you're scared he'll take the rest of the movie with it.
But Holdridge gets a lot of mileage out of charm. His two stars are likable. McNairy seems incurably lonely and resembles other forlorn-looking guys, like screenwriter and actor Mike White ("Chuck and Buck") and Andy Warhol actor Taylor Mead. He doesn't have much of a movie presence, but as the film spins into full-blown craziness, McNairy's sadness suddenly has a point: That long face becomes an anchor of sanity. Simmonds, meanwhile, is a captivating species of actor. She's Cameron Diaz with zestier zest, a whiff of craziness, and some real struggle in her face. You're not sure you like her, in the same way that Wilson isn't sure he does. For a while, it looks as if she'll shove the film into other Manhattan territory: Martin Scorsese's comedy of bad-date surrealism, "After Hours." But "Midnight Kiss" is a less ambitiously cruel movie - and its central date is promising by comparison.
The movie is a far cry from the comedies of inarticulation and inaction that have won a backhanded video-story shelf ("mumblecore"). "Midnight Kiss" is actually about active souls. The movie gives us two transplants to Los Angeles who discover the city's underpopulated splendors while discovering each other. That they do most of this on foot constitutes a major leap of imagination. This is the rare movie about the start of something interesting that happens to look a lot like the end of the world.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.