Back in 1995, Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" introduced us to a couple of attractive, silly and utterly endearing 20-somethings. Jesse was an American would-be writer, played by Ethan Hawke with a grunge-era goatee; Celine was an idealistic French girl, played by a willowy, flinty Julie Delpy. On a train to Vienna, they flirted over their paperbacks and then engaged in one of the most magical and poignant courtships in the movies.
Nine years later, they met again in "Before Sunset." Jesse was a successful novelist, Celine an environmentalist, both in committed relationships. But their attraction was clearer than ever, and the film's sense of suspense -- would Jesse reclaim his lost love? -- was nearly unbearable.
Nearly another decade has passed, and our once-young lovers are back in "Before Midnight." They are married and living in Paris with two daughters. Reality has set in. Jesse misses his preteen son in the U.S., but Celine refuses to relocate. On vacation in Greece, they attempt to relive their carefree youth for a night but instead confront a crisis in their relationship.
"Before Midnight," once again co-written by Linklater and his two actors, holds endless possibilities for deep-reaching drama, especially if (like some of us) you've grown alongside these movies. How depressing, then, that it feels so rushed and halfhearted.
The problems of married life are glancingly addressed -- children, housework, dual careers -- but the conversations concentrate largely on the well-worn differences between men (sex on the brain) and women (outward focused). Delpy's Celine has hardened into an angry harridan, while Hawke's Jesse seems barely present. Insulted by his wife on every level, from his lovemaking to his writing, he responds glibly, "What'd you expect at this point in your life, Missy?"
If this sounds like Edward Albee-style verbal brutality, Linklater's distracted direction (random close-ups include a tomato and a cellphone) suggests something else: a lack of interest. "Before Midnight" is heartbreaking, but not because of Jesse and Celine. It's the filmmakers' passions that seem to have cooled.
PLOT Nearly 20 years after first meeting, Jesse and Celine face the realities of marriage, children and cooling passions.
RATING R (sexual content, nudity, language
CAST Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
BOTTOM LINE A heartbreaking chapter in Richard Linklater's romantic trilogy, but only because it feels so hasty and lazy. The love lost here seems to be for the whole project.