In Search of a Midnight Kiss began life as writer-director Alex Holdridge’s revenge on Hollywood, and has ended up as one of the most original romantic comedies of recent years. Like his central character, Holdridge moved to LA in search of fame and fortune, flipped his car on the way — the photograph of the wreck in the movie is genuine — and spent several years wrestling with the studio system before deciding instead to make his own film on his own terms.
The premise is simple: can depressive, failing screenwriter Wilson (co-producer Scoot McNairy) secure himself a date on New Year’s Eve? Under pressure from his best friends Jacob and Min, Wilson puts up an ad on Craig’s List — “Misanthrope Seeks Same” — and is soon summoned to an LA cafe to meet Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a wilful, seemingly self-confident blonde with a penchant for dry put-downs and huge sunglasses. The film then follows their adventures as the hours count down towards that elusive midnight kiss.
The film isn’t Holdridge’s first, but it’s certainly his breakthrough. It’s fresh, funny and freewheeling, with an easy chemistry between the characters, most of whom are played by the director’s real-life friends and co-workers: there’s a particularly funny cameo by the film’s cinematographer, Robert Murphy, as Vivian’s possessive, dangerous ex-boyfriend. But there’s a real tenderness here too. At a time when so much US independent cinema sets out to be cool, ironic and self-conscious, In Search of a Midnight Kiss is warm and melancholy, more concerned with longing than with satisfaction: the search for happiness, it implies, is an ongoing one, whether in or outside a relationship.
It’s also outstandingly beautiful. Shot in black and white, and filmed largely on location in downtown Los Angeles, the look of the film immediately recalls Manhattan. But the shooting style is a reminder of an even earlier era, its strong, simple compositions closer to the work of Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges. As Holdridge explained at this week’s Curzon screening, this was a deliberate strategy to give the film some of the tone of classic Hollywood romantic comedies, despite its explicit humour — there’s a Photoshop scene that’s sure to be ripped off for years to come — and digital video aesthetic.
In Search of a Midnight Kiss isn’t perfect: the character development feels too abrupt in places, and there’s a plot twist later in the film that feels far too soapy for the tone of the movie. It also feels too much a male movie: as so often in contemporary comedy the men get off more lightly than the women. But Holdridge has a warmth, intelligence and likeability, both in his film and speaking to an audience, that’s rare and welcome, and makes Midnight Kiss a promise of terrific work to come.