Friday, August 06, 2010
The Kids Are All Right
Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is the hip choice of a mostly dreary summer; it has racked up impressive box-office in its relatively small release, and why not? Boasting first-rate talent and a pro-family message that transcends gender and sexual orientation, The Kids Are All Right is the perfect liberal, humanist drama to catch between a trip to your local organic co-op and an open mic night at the coffeehouse. So then why did I find it so irritating?
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a long-settled couple with bustling lives who are raising two bright, well-scrubbed children conceived through artificial insemination. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), bright though socially awkward, is looking forward to college while 15-year old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) lightly experiments with drugs and sullenness. It's easy to see the household's fault lines in the early scenes. Nic is a doctor while Jules has a vague notion of starting a landscaping business and endures low-grade guilt trips from Nic about her flightiness. It seems Jules never followed through on an architecture degree and in a past career failed at "importing Balinese furniture". (The look on Bening's face when Moore reveals this is priceless.) Nic and Jules seem to exist in a constant state of attack and retreat, of confrontation and apology with awkward interludes for sex in between. As if that weren't tiring enough the two talk to each other like self-help books, and I almost laughed out loud when Nic apologized for not being "her highest self". Their marriage is just as complex and rumpled as any couple's, and Cholodenko must have thought we wouldn't get it if all Nic and Jules did was go to Laser's games and cook together. Moore plays Jules with a nervous energy that doesn't always seem appropriate to the situation, and it isn't clear what Cholodenko wants us to think of her when the film's other major character enters the story.
Joni makes contact with Paul (Mark Ruffalo) at her brother's urging. 19 years ago Paul had donated the sperm that was used to conceive Joni and Laser; he's now an overgrown dude who seems perfectly content with the successful restaurant he owns and the casual sex he has with one of his employees. Ruffalo is excellent, not letting Paul slip into caricature and finding glints of keen intelligence underneath the slacker exterior. Paul isn't as out there as Nic and Jules make him out to be ("He's working the alternative thing pretty hard"), but Ruffalo nails the idea of a content guy waking up to wanting more in his life. There are some promising bonding moments with the kids, but the situation (and the movie) get complicated when Paul hires Jules to "landscape" his backyard. I didn't believe for one second that Jules knew anything about landscaping, she flits around using words like "fecund" and moving pots from one place to another. Jules is at Paul's house to turn the film into a melodrama. Jules and Paul hop into bed together; we're never told about Jules's sexuality before she met Nic, but the act of an affair with a man is portrayed as a quest for attention as opposed to the moment of self-questioning it might be for a lifelong lesbian.
Things predictably blow up and Paul's relationship with Joni and Laser is ruined. For a movie that so loudly affirms the normality of the family at its center there's remarkably little tolerance for messiness or unfulfilled ambition. Paul, who besides Joni was the character I wanted to know the most about, is judged very harshly for not having his life figured out; there's something unusually warm about Paul's lack of defensiveness about himself but Cholodenko is having none of it. Jules gets a humiliating closing speech that loudly restates the movie's theme ("Marriage is hard") and leaves us with the impression she's a twit that Nic is carrying. The movie ends with Nic and Jules together and apparently on the road to reconciliation. I wanted to stop at the scene before; we leave Joni alone and free at college, ready to make her own mistakes, get up, and try again.