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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Before Midnight'

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Ethan Hawke, left, and Julie Delpy star in "Before Midnight"

BEFORE MIDNIGHT

(R)

2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Although it unlikely started out as such, director Richard Linklater's "Before" series of romantic dramas is likely the only such trilogy of its kind in movie history. Receiving almost universal critical praise and amassing a huge cult following, the franchise has benefited greatly from spreading out its installments out over almost two decades in practical real time. The characters and the actors playing them aged at the same rate and, with "Midnight," have come full circle.

Depending on what you're looking for from it, "Midnight" will either be the most or least satisfying installment of the bunch. In 1995's "Before Sunrise," Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) were strangers that met on a train and reveled in what each thought was a magical one-night encounter. Nine years later in "Before Sunset," they reconnected while writer Jesse was on a book tour and discovered the magic was still there. In "Midnight," they're now married with children and are going through the same sort of mid-life crisis situations that have faced the majority of couples since the dawn of time.

Employing virtually none of the atmospheric cinematography or European-influenced ambience of the first two, the 108-minute "Midnight" contains more dialogue than the first two installments combined and is exceedingly stagey and static. Taking place in scenic southern Greece, "Midnight" is split up into three parts that all but fail to take advantage of that region's unique visual splendor. While the middle section does include some nice lakeside views, the opening and closing portions play out in a car and hotel room, respectively. Cinematic, it isn't.

Another thing it isn't: romantic -- which could be the point. After two films full of swooning, flirting and passionate love-making, it is possible co-writers Linklater, Hawke and Delpy simply didn't want to deliver more of the same. From a psychological perspective, this is a great alternative concept. After 20 years gone by, and with the addition of kids, a few pounds here and there, and some wrinkles, is it realistic to expect the same level of enthusiasm enjoyed at the start of the journey? For Jesse and Celine, the answer is a resounding no.

After dropping his son off at the airport after a summer of what passed for bonding, Jesse, Celine and their sleeping, beyond-angelic twin toddler girls head back to a friend's lakeside villa. With zero camera movement, Linklater shoots everything from the hood of a car where the conversation between the leads swings from mundane to mildly sweet to borderline contentious. Suggestions and statements of fact are wrongly perceived as ultimatums or outright demands, and for them -- and the audience -- it's a supreme mood-killer.

By far the best part of the film (mostly because Jesse and Celine are joined by six other intelligent adults), the middle section is set around a dinner table where love, sex, meaning-of-life stuff and metaphysics dominate the conversation. It's at once heavy and light, playful, sometimes risque, immensely enlightening and, again, offers very little in way of camera movement.

The final section features just Jess and Celine during one exceedingly long walk where the camera does move, but just backward. It's the closest the film gets to recapturing the magic of the first two, but this is ultimately short-lived when the pair returns to their hotel room, take off their metaphoric gloves and have at each other.

For those who prefer truth over beauty, "Midnight" will resonate and be viewed as an accurate depiction of real people navigating the often rough waters that sometimes comes with routine, boredom and creeping middle age. In this particular case, the problem with "truth" is that it wasn't what the first two installments extolled. It was storybook romance come to life and exactly what romance fans crave and received by the truckload.

This particular demographic (mostly over-30 females) doesn't want to experience something it might already be getting at home; it wants sweeping escapism shot in soft-focus light with a string score in the background. They don't wish to see the two romantic leads they've come to know and embrace bickering in a starkly lit hotel room or to be talked to death. (Sony Pictures Classics)