Tuesday, December 14, 2010
The Kids Are All Right Movie Review: A Typical American Family - Made from a Sperm Donor
Annette Bening is one of the lucky few Hollywood actresses who has transitioned gracefully into middle age without being cast aside for younger ingénues. I believe she’s done this by consistently choosing good material that reflects her maturity and professionalism as an actress. Her performance as Nic in The Kids Are All Right is so good it almost demands your full attention or else you might miss the fact that she’s acting.
That is the real shame of it in terms of recognition. Awards voters tend to reward the flashier performances, hence the reason Bening was Oscar nominated for her diva roles in American Beauty and Being Julia. Those performances almost announce, “Watch me Acting!”
I don’t intend to detract from Julianne Moore, who plays Nic’s wife Jules, because she is masterful as always. What’s so wonderful about both performances is that neither relies on stereotypes to express their sexuality. That they are a gay couple is treated tastefully as fact, not as fetish. Most of the credit for that must go to director Lisa Cholodenko. However, she and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg, make one very serious miscalculation that almost undercuts all the good work they achieved leading up to that moment.
Nic and Jules have two children, each conceived with sperm from a donor bank. They are Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The homosexuality of the moms really only informs the story insofar as there is some underlying family tension resulting from the pressure put on Joni to be a perfect daughter and student, possibly in order to demonstrate to the world that a same-sex couple can raise normal kids.
Laser encourages his sister to contact the donor bank so they can meet their biological father. This turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and his sudden presence in their lives ruffles more than a few feathers. He and the kids take a quick liking to each other, but Nic and Jules see it as a kind of refection or betrayal. Although Paul runs a successful business, Nic the perfectionist sees him as unsuccessful due to his having given up college, never having married, and basically living the freewheeling bachelor’s life.
Another aspect of her character Bening nails is the way she can just barely suppress her agitation or displeasure with anything that doesn’t fit her worldview or coincide with her way of doing things. There’s a way of winking at the audience that many actors will employ when trying to express that emotion, but Bening gets it pitch perfect.
Just over a decade ago, Ruffalo was hailed by some as the second coming of Brando after his turn in You Can Count on Me. Since that remarkable performance he hasn’t quite lived up to the promise. Paul is, in many ways, an extension of his character in the earlier film. Or at least he is the way Ruffalo plays him, which is laid back and awkwardly searching for the right thing to say. Paul is a man who donated sperm when he was 19 without ever thinking about the potential consequences. Eighteen years later he’s staring face to face with the result. Something about it is quite appealing to him – perhaps that he’s got two intelligent, motivated, reasonably well-adjusted children after having missed out on all the hard work of child rearing. Now that that part’s over, Paul wants in. If only it were so simple… or about him for that matter.
Paul’s intrusion into the family dynamic serves mainly to expose the problems that have been brewing beneath the surface. There are marital issues that have never been discussed, let alone resolved. And here the movie takes a most unfortunate tack: Jules winds up having an affair with Paul. This feels like an unbelievable betrayal to the audience. After taking careful measures to present a gay couple as a family, after avoiding the “gay” label for more than half the running time, Cholodenko and Blumberg have the audacity to ask us to believe Jules would jump into the sack with a man, not just once or twice, but repeatedly. This betrayal reminded me of the theory of Jason Lee’s character in Chasing Amy when he (rather crudely) says that he doesn’t believe in lesbians because deep down everyone needs d---.
Whether that was Cholodenko’s intention I do not know, but it certainly is the effect. Imagine for a moment a film about a heterosexual married couple with some relatively minor marital hiccups. Suddenly the husband, feeling underappreciated, jumps into bed with the first good looking man who makes eyes at him. It’s virtually inconceivable, yet somehow regarded as acceptable when we’re talking about a lesbian choosing an affair with a man. It’s a ploy that feels like a sellout to the conservative audience members who might only have put up with a story of a gay couple if one reveals herself to be confused about her sexuality for a moment.
That Cholodenko is a lesbian herself doesn’t excuse it. Then again maybe I’m wrong. Maybe women are generally more open sexual experiences with both men and women in a way men aren’t. Still, it feels preposterous and it’s a real shame that an otherwise thoughtful character-driven movie had to succumb to such conventional nonsense.