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Richard Linklater's 'Before Midnight' Explores The Messiness Of Love And Middle Age

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(Eds. note: we're not giving away the ending, but if you don't want to know where the movie picks up then you probably shouldn't read this—or any—review.)

Remember that amid all the summer blockbusters (and block-busts) are a number of smaller films that deserve just as much hype. First among them is Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, the third film in a series—following Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004)—that chronicles the lives of lovers Jesse and Celine through short snapshots in time. The film is a true cinematic collaboration between the director and his writers/actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who have added a depth to their characters after nearly 20 years. (It's rare that we get to follow characters for this long, without having actors being replaced with younger, sleeker models.)

Here's a quick recap to jog our collective memories on the couple's history. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine first meet on a train and disembark in Vienna, spending the night walking and talking throughout the city, learning about themselves and each other. Their time is limited because he's catching a flight back to the U.S., and they reveal so much more than usual, thinking they'll never see each other again.

Before Sunset picks up nine years later as Jesse is in Paris on the last stop of a book tour, promoting his best-selling novel based on the night with Celine in Vienna. Celine surprises Jesse at the reading and again, they spend the afternoon catching up with each other and eventually acknowledge the dissatisfaction with their current relationships. This time, the film ends with the audience assuming Jesse misses his flight back home. (If you haven't seen the first two films, we recommend watching them first to put their history into perspective.)

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Before Midnight fast-forwards Jesse and Celine's lives nine years as they're now in their 40s and well into the routine of adult life. As the film opens, Jesse is at an airport in Greece putting his 14-year-old son Hank on a plane back to the U.S. Jesse promises to come to Hank's recital, but Hank says not to since, "Mom hates you so much." He reassures his anxious Dad that he's just had the "best summer ever," and then sets off without looking back from the jetway. We follow Jesse out of the terminal, and he gets into a car where Celine and their young twin daughters await (guess he did miss that flight).

As they drive the Grecian countryside to get to a writer's retreat, Jesse suggests that they consider moving back to the U.S. to be closer to Hank, while she tells him of a new job offer she's considering in Paris as the next step in her environmentalist's career path. This car scene lasts more than a dozen minutes, and we listen to Jesse and Celine reveal the past few years of their lives. The beauty of this long take—and it happens throughout the film—is that it seems so natural. There's not a whiff of "acting," which is a testament to the work of Delpy, Hawke and Linklater. Rather, we feel like eavesdroppers on their conversations about real-life issues. You know, the grown-up stuff. (Ben Affleck was just calling it like it is when he said that marriage was hard work during is Oscars speech.)

Both Hawke and Delpy look all of their 40-something years, and Delpy's Celine isn't afraid to talk about her thinning hair and her less-than-supermodel figure. Before Midnight comes to a climax in a 30-minute, bare-knuckled, drag-out fight. Their friends have given them a night's stay away from the kids at a sleek hotel near the writer's retreat. But instead of using the time drinking wine and making love, the real world creeps in until they can't keep it at bay any longer. They push each other's buttons, they get really angry and upset, and they say things that can't be taken back. There are snippets that make us laugh, too, as when Jesse calls Celine "the mayor of crazy town," or when Celine tells Jesse that as a lover, he's no Henry Miller. But before the night ends we hear words uttered that make us cringe. Is their romance really over?

Before Midnight is a thoughtful look at a relationship that's gone a long distance. Some of us have grown with these characters, and it's a revelation watching the idealism of youth replaced with realism. We see it every day with friends, parents and in our own relationships. And unlike usual celluloid couplings, the answer for Jesse and Celine isn't black and white: Love is messy. Life is messy. With Linklater's help, the film's two leads put it all out there for the audience, who we hope will take the time to appreciate this quietly riveting film that sets off as many (emotional) fireworks as any other big-budget action film this summer.

Before Midnight opens today in LA, New York and Austin.