The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko)

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For a structure nerd, this movie borders on offensive. Picking up plot threads and unceremoniously dropping them with no resolution, pretending to be about one conflict while ultimately dodging its implications fully in favor of some half-hearted tenuous closure about another, creating characters who don’t seem to be the same people from one scene to the next, reeling you in with good-natured humor before becoming a downright unpleasant domestic drama, this awards-baiter has some issues. It’s a pity because it’s built on a fascinating concept; all of the spoiler-free press ran along the following lines — two children of a lesbian couple set out to find their biological sperm donor father, and upon meeting him lets him into their life with the result of an upheaval in the long-running family’s dynamic. It sounds cute and interesting, as you can imagine a sort of strange imbalance and adjustment in the four-person household taking in this outsider’s new place in their lives. Because surely a film directed and cowritten by an out lesbian responsible for one of the most elegant and refreshingly nonchalant movies about a non-straight couple (High Art) wouldn’t have sperm-provider Mark Ruffalo (great as always) managing to lead one of the mothers to doubt her sexuality and start fucking him, right? Because that’s a totally douchey premise, right? Right??

Wrong, and beyond being simply awkward, the result seems like kind of a cheat. Instead of an intriguingly different story about life and change within an “unconventional family” (the film’s phrase), it turns out to be a crushingly familiar and done-to-death tale of infidelity and jealousy dressed up in a progressive-liberal dreamcoat. More irritatingly, everything about the film works well enough except its story. It’s confidently if not spectacularly directed, the script has some solid laughs and decent characterization before it goes off the rails, and the performances are splendid. But look, it’s a Spanglish-caliber romantic dramedy, all the same stuff we’ve watched happen buried in emotional shorthand and classicist Hollywood absence of detail, only involving lesbians and a sperm donor. Todd Solondz wasn’t kidding when he (not derisively) mentioned that The Kids Are All Right is the sort of commercial faux-indie movie that studios used to openly bankroll. The trope cuts both ways: it should be perfectly acceptable for any movie about a couple to involve a same-sex couple, but by the same token a movie about a same-sex couple can’t get a pass for the things we’d yell at a straight movie about.

It’s so frustrating, because how often do we get a production of this prestige directed by a woman? How often do we even get movies about middle-aged women, much less middle-aged women in love with one another? By default, The Kids Are All Right should be something pretty exceptional. And out of the gate, it soars on its introduction of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore); their long-term relationship begins as being completely believable, intimate, and amusingly sweet in its perfectly realistic quirks. The early scene when the two watch a gay porn tape together (Bening complaining that “the guys in this one” are “too shaved”) captures just the kind of tellingly perverse behavior that movies about relationships, especially American ones, nearly always ignore. They unpredictably alternate between lightly bickering and smooching like any couple of their age and longevity, and the film spends so much time establishing the depth of their connection that it’s truly baffling when, a half hour in, not only is the introduction of organic gardening third party Paul an immediate threat to their bond, it seems to turn them into insultingly stereotypical husband-and-wife figures. What’s the point of establishing a likable couple if the goal of the film is to waste 107 minutes trying to rip them apart? It’s like if you spent Away We Go or The Thin Man worried about the marriage surviving instead of the matter at hand, pregnancy and murder mystery respectively. When the basis of your story is a happy and stable couple, it makes little sense for it to be challenged the instant something difficult occurs.

That’s not to say the film shouldn’t have conflict, just that the conflict should be more interesting than “Julianne Moore, a lesbian, spends five minutes alone with Mark Ruffalo and suddenly they’re fucking.” (The frankness and lack of hazy embellishment in Cholodenko’s sex scenes is still a relief, however. Compare, for instance, Woody Allen’s horrendously ugly and unrealistic such work in Match Point.) There are so many opportunities in this film’s central idea for things we haven’t seen before in a movie; so much more could have been done with the welcoming and weariness of Ruffalo’s presence, not to mention his own conflicts about it. How might Ruffalo’s Paul have dealt with the extended families? How might his relationship with the kids have developed over a longer period of time? The mothers? The creation of an unusual new sort of family, a father living apart but still involved and amicable, would be a more memorable, engrossing, and modern film than a variation on Divorced Dad Takes Kids to Do Things Mom Doesn’t Usually Allow, a movie I’ve seen before and so have you.

Even the imposition of conventional movie structure on all this doesn’t quite come off, to the point I’m mystified at the praise heaped upon the film. It’s a shaggy dog joke of sorts; the paternity query doesn’t end up mattering by the end of the film, its overall impact strictly that there was a problem between Jules and Nic and now they’re working through it. Paul’s set up as a perfectly likable, if mildly self-absorbed character; it’s neither fully his fault nor Jules’ that the two sleep together (and checking another person’s drain for your lover’s hair is kind of a push in the psychosis direction if you ask me), so why does the movie end up punishing him, discarding him wholly? The similar lack of closure is lent to the individual storylines lazily offered the two children. Joni (Mia Wasikowska) crushes on a polite friend of hers, makes out with him at a party while drunk, but we’re never told what (if anything) happens; Laser (Josh Hutcherson) has a friend who’s a total dick and everyone but him knows it, and they eventually get into a physical altercation over whether or not it’s all right to piss on a stray dog’s head (!?). Then suddenly that’s all forgotten too. Maybe movies may as well have test audiences if they come out this cluttered and nonsensical anyway.

Look, Moore is great in this. Bening is too; she even sings Joni Mitchell at one point, and it’s wonderfully painful. But Cholodenko (who postponed production post-greenlight so she could have a child by an anonymous sperm donor!) and cowriter Stuart Blumberg (who’s “worked” as a sperm donor!) keep giving them these goddamn speeches. At one point in the film, Julianne Moore literally sits the rest of the cast down and announces she has to give a speech, then she does (message: marriage is hard and stuff), which is a lazy screenwriting shortcut unworthy of a film with this pedigree, something out of Chasing Amy. Which brings us to the thing I don’t quite want to bring up and do I have to? But come on, I wonder if a straight man directed and/or wrote this, what most lesbians would quite rightfully think of the implication that (some?) gay women are just waiting for the right dick. Obviously that’s not what Cholodenko thinks and not what she’s getting at, but this is another way that the strict adherence to convention hurts this film, another reason it becomes downright uncomfortable to watch.

But all right. Just as the first act mostly sidesteps the later problems of wildly uneven characterization and tone, the finale brings things in nicely — the film hasn’t really been building to the moment when Joni goes away for college, but since the story itself has gone to shit it’s an oddly satisfying and emotional goodbye to these people, who for a brief moment seemed real to us. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for movies (see Boys Don’t Cry) that close with long metaphoric car drives into the future, but I did smile at the final joke of son Laser claiming that Jules and Nic are “too old” to break up and staring mischievously out the window. Was the entire movie built for one sequence, its last five minutes, that then proved not to have much to do with the story itself? That happens surprisingly often to movies. Usually the scene in question ends up being painfully cut by the director. Not this time, and maybe it’s a good thing; it slid me back toward grudgingly reminding myself that the basis for this movie, its theoretically happy world and its sometimes vivid occupants, appealed to me at some base level that simply can’t look past its incomplete, depressingly clichéd nature.

Hey, Steven Spielberg’s daughter is in this. She’s the girl who tells Joni to go away because she and whatshisname are having a conversation. She’s credited as “Waify Girl.” OK, done.

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