Monday, December 27, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasakowska, Josh Hutcherson
Running Time: 104 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Liberal Hollywood is at it again, this time taking the time out to kindly remind us that yes, same-sex marriage unions do exist and sometimes those involved in them even struggle with life problems every once in a while. But I doubt the problems they struggle with bare much resemblance to the sitcom-level farce that plays out in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. Interestingly enough, the song "The Kids Are Alright" never once makes an appearance on the soundtrack which I guess isn't too surprising given the noticeable spelling change in the title to avoid a potential Pete Townshend lawsuit. That my thoughts frequently turned to music copyrighting issues while watching can't be a good sign (for me or the film), but sadly, it just might be the most interesting topic worth discussing. That title is unintentionally revealing as everything in the movie concerning the kids and their attempts to connect with their biological father is most definitely all right. It's the relationship between their cartoonish parents that's not. But don't feel too sorry for Annette Bening and Julianne Moore who, as talented as they are, sometimes seem entirely too comfortable lowering themselves with this material. It's easy to see why the film's been receiving a lot of praise but much of it has to do with its topic rather than what's actually on screen.

Jules (Moore) and Nic (Bening) are a lesbian couple living in California who may or may not be legally married (it's never made explicitly clear) and are raising their two teenage kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Each mother has given birth to one of the children by the same anonymous sperm donor, who Laser suddenly has the urge to track down and meet. Not yet 18, he has to rely on Jonie to make the call to this stranger who's their dad. The father turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a likable, laid-back restaurateur who seems content in his freewheeling bachelor existence, having never known or cared to know about the responsibility that comes with being a parent. After an awkward first meeting over lunch he quickly bonds with the kids and becomes a part of their life, as well as the "moms," who have mixed feelings on Paul being suddenly inserted into the picture. Those mixed feelings become even more complicated when seemingly out of left field the friendship between he and Jules takes a romantic turn, threatening to rip this previously well-adjusted family apart.

I knew we were in for it when the film started with a scene of Jules and Nic in bed watching gay-male porn. Worse yet, it's followed up later with a scene of them explaining why to their kid and that human sexuality is a complicated thing blah blah blah. What are screenwriters thinking sometimes? If the film really wants to be about them being gay then by all means it should be, but if it doesn't, and wants to show how they're just like any normal couple with everyday problems, then do that. But you can't have it both ways by including a ludicrous scene meant to earn cheap laughs at the expense of their homosexuality. Maybe the scene's true to life. I have no idea. But that doesn't make it work any better within the context of the story being told on screen. That tonal clash runs throughout the picture so it's through little fault of Moore and Bening's that I never for a second believed they were a lesbian couple, especially when they're given such stereotypical characters to play. Nearly one word descriptions suffice. Jules is a new age hippie while Nic is a perfectionist control freak. The actresses do the best they can with the roles (Bening is a especially good in a memorable dinner table scene) but it's a lost cause when both are continually undermined by the sitcom machinations of what sometimes feels like a rejected Three's Company script.  The preposterous affair that occurs between Jules and Paul feels completely arbitrary and manufactured for drama, and even despite the performers' best efforts, it just isn't believable in the slightest.

The sub-plots involving the kids and their adolescent struggles are much more realistic and Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both fantastic at conveying the confusion of whether to let this guy in and trust him, as well as their own uncertainty of who they are. Wasikowska (the Alice in Alice in Wonderland) is especially effective and I'd rather nominate either of them for acting awards than Moore or Bening, who never have a chance to take off with these silly characters. Luckily, that's not necessary because we have Mark Ruffalo who nearly saves this film with his performance as a man tentatively embracing a massive change in his lifestyle. He goes from being kind of open to the idea, to going with it and then to just totally freaking out when he realizes what it would mean, and sells it all believably. He also creates the kind of personality for Paul where you'd understand why the kids would find him cool and the moms would have major problems with it. Everything involving him and the kids works on every level and he find a way to elevate every scene in, appearing to do so effortlessly. Because of him, HALF this film is a success.

If the writers removed the gimmick at its center the movie would be more likely to be seen for the middling effort it is, and while it would turn out no better or worse, at least it would be slightly less patronizing. When you put all the pieces together, it's just a near-miss in terms of actual quality and I'm not trying to dismiss Bening's strong performance, but this is just the latest example of a cinematic public service announcement being rolled out for awards attention. Whether it's war, rape, discrimination, teen pregnancy, or any other timely social issue, we see this happen every year, but that doesn't mean it has to be so transparent or it can't be done well. The big question to ask coming out of The Kids Are All Right is if you replaced the lesbian couple with a straight one whether it would make any difference at all, and if it did, whether anyone would still care.


Craig said...

Yeah, we're on the same page with this one. There's a lot I liked about the film, despite the fact that so many scenes are full of sitcom "misunderstandings" (parents think their son is gay, etc.) they could have played with a laugh-track or whoop-whoops from a studio audience. As you indicated, the actors elevate the material. But not enough.

jeremythecritic said...

The actors definitely earned their paychecks here but yeah there were many times where a laugh-track wouldn't have seemed that out of place at all.