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"Before Midnight" presents a paradox: It's the best entry in director Richard Linklater's romantic trilogy, but it's also the first in the series that doesn't leave me dying to know what happens next.

"Before Midnight" continues the romantic journey of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). When we met them in "Before Sunrise" (1995), they were 23 and meeting for the first time over a stopover in Vienna. They met again in "Before Sunset" (2004), after Jesse had written a novel based on their first encounter and Celine found him at a Paris book-signing to restart the conversation.

Now, another nine years later, and Jesse and Celine are together with a pair of 7-year-old twin daughters. Jesse has a 14-year-old son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), from his previous marriage (which was disintegrating even before he and Celine hooked up last time). They are vacationing in the southern Peloponnese, in Greece.

The movie starts with Jesse, still scruffy, seeing Hank off at the Kalamata airport, as the boy flies back to America and his mother after "the best summer of my life." Then Jesse and Celine, still beautiful, drive back to the summer house where they're staying. They talk about this and that while the twins sleep in the back seat.

The conversation covers mundane subjects, like whether to wake the girls to look at some ruins. It also brings up some momentous topics, like whether Celine will take a job in the French government's environmental office — or whether the family should move to Chicago so Jesse can be closer to Hank.

These topics are temporarily dismissed when the couple reconvene with their Greek friends for a lively dinner conversation. The friends neatly represent different phases of Jesse and Celine's relationship: Achilleas (Yiannas Papadopoulos) and Anna (Ariane Labed) are as young as Jesse and Celine were in 1995, Ariadne (Athina Rachel Tsangari) and Stefanos (Panos Koronis) are closer to their present ages, and their widowed host, Patrick (played by the cinematographer Walter Lassally), represents where they might end up.

But it's the movie's third act — a romantic night at a nearby hotel, free of the kids — where the conversational sparks really fly. It all starts when Celine asks Jesse a loaded question: If he saw her today on that train to Vienna, would he try to pick her up?

It's worth it to watch "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," but seeing them isn't a requirement to appreciate "Before Midnight." Linklater, Hawke and Delpy (who all collaborated on the semi-improvised script) occasionally touch on the past, but Linklater's direction and the actors' lived-in performances keep the relationship rooted in the here and now.

They are now at a point where they are living the consequences of their choices. They are trying to make the best of things without regrets, though in quiet moments they are not above pulling out old gripes — such as when Celine comments that Jesse's love-making isn't as varied as in his novels, which are based on their life.

The trilogy has become the romantic-drama version of Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries, updating us on this couple's status every nine years. But while the previous films showed them still in the process of becoming, "Before Midnight" shows them, at 41, pretty much as who they are. I don't know how much more I'll want to learn about Jesse and Celine at age 50 — but by the time Linklater, Hawke and Delpy reconvene in 2022, they will probably make it worthwhile.

Twitter: @moviecricket


'Before Midnight'

The continuing romantic adventures of Jesse and Celine, now much older and wiser about love and life.

Where • Opens Friday, June 14.

When • Area theaters.

Rating • Rated R for sexual content/nudity and language.

Running time • 108 minutes.

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