Review: The Kids Are All Right, 2010, dir. Lisa Cholodenk

Walking away from Lisa Cholodenko’s latest effort, the curiously titled The Kids Are All Right, I felt myself being pulled in multiple directions by its varying incongruities and opaque intentions. This is a confused film, a film unsure of exactly whose story it wants to tell and greatly confused over the message it’s supposed to convey to its audience. The end result is disappointing and frustratingly pleased with itself, which is not to say that the film has no merits worth smiling about but instead that in light of how much Cholodenko’s picture misses the mark, that sense of self-satisfaction feels totally unearned.

The Kids Are All Right inserts us into the home life of the Allgoods, comprised of dual matriarchs Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their two children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and portrays how their family dynamic shifts in reaction to the introduction of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anonymous sperm donor both women used to conceive their children. The mothers are threatened, feeling that Paul’s presence in their lives could undermine their relationship to their children; alternately, Joni is enamored by Paul’s lifestyle and attitude while Laser feels happy to have some form of male role model in his life. From a distance, this seems like a good deal for both of them.

But that doesn’t really matter, because despite the name of the film their story isn’t central to the plot. In fact, if you excise Joni and Laser as characters from every part of the picture beyond the first forty five minutes– in which they are crucial, because they’re the ones whose efforts visit Paul upon their family unit– the movie doesn’t change a whole lot. This is because The Kids Are All Right is actually about Nic’s and Jules’ stale relationship and can be characterized as a more straightforward marital drama than anything else; the film comes to revolve around their ailing marriage, as Nic, the breadwinner, doesn’t show her full appreciation for Jules, the housewife, who in turn impulsively has an affair with Paul. And ultimately, that’s the film’s downfall, because in honing in on the love triangle between Nic, Jules, and Paul, the film shapes into something withered and bland.

As a rule I do not advocate criticizing films for what they are not, but Cholodenko sets the movie up to tell Laser’s and Joni’s stories and fully examine how the emergence of Paul impacts their lives and the lives of their parents. She switches gears about halfway through, though, and she does so after laying the groundwork for a more insightful film in which we see how meeting the man who helped contribute to their conception changes their lives. It’s not that we don’t see his influence in Joni and Laser at all, it’s that Paul’s relationship with the kids is treated as secondary to the tawdry melodrama between the adults and that lack of development turns the film into a flat and lifeless “trouble in the suburbs” dramafest, American Beauty with lesbians. Based on Cholodenko’s own narrative choices the kids should be the film’s foremost concern, and yet they only get as much attention as the average subplot might.

Maybe Cholodenko really doesn’t have that much interest in Joni’s and Laser’s stories, which is totally her prerogative. But a depiction of marital disintegration, even when that marriage is between two women who find their bond endangered by a straight male figure, isn’t fresh or especially inspired; it’s the director’s job to give us a reason to really care about the particular marriage being portrayed. Frankly, Cholodenko seems to be riding on the obvious disparity between the couple of her own story and the couples of stories that fall within the same milieu to make her film stand out from those of her peers. But ultimately, Nic and Jules could easily have been a straight couple without changing the essentials of their drama; they lack any distinct character traits and behaviors that make them unique and worthy of our renewed attentions.

I want to praise Cholodenko’s choice to feature a homosexual couple playing the role of the parents rather than the traditional heterosexual couples that constitute the norm for this particular genre. I really do. In her decision to observe the home life of a family headed by a same-sex couple she clearly intends to highlight the simple, plain truth that such a household is no different at its core than one in which the parental figures are opposite genders; it’s a modern message that I wholeheartedly support, even if I would have liked to have seen the film examine and embrace what makes Nic and Jules different from Dick and Jane. That said I can’t really give the filmmaker a whole lot of credit for figuring out how to make that choice matter when it absolutely must. If the substance is lacking, though, at least the spirit is tangible.

I think that for all of the flaws I found in The Kids Are All Right‘s structure and narrative, I could have enjoyed the movie had the acting been consistently top notch across the board, but I can’t wrap my head around Annette Bening’s Oscar nomination. When Julianne Moore spends every second she’s on screen acting circles around both her adult co-stars, the fact that she couldn’t secure a nomination at all is practically unfathomable when Bening, put bluntly, is such a bore (and Ruffalo is sleepwalking until the last act); there’s nothing natural about  her performance, and no emotion that makes her character truly palatable. Meanwhile, Moore invests her livelihood in each of her moments in front of the camera and translates what drives and moves her character to her audience. Her sense of loneliness and her feelings of being unappreciated read– both emotions are clearly worn on the actress’ sleeve. In a movie where there should be no sides taken, feeling compassion for Jules even after she hops in the sack with Paul is almost automatic. Moore has long been a reliable performer and expectedly, she brings a lot of verve and poignancy to the proceedings here. And along with Moore, the kids fare well; both Wasikowska and Hutcherson continue to prove themselves as up and coming young performers, successfully forging the brother/sister dynamic and making for satisfactorily difficult and defiant teenagers, but neither gets the screen time they deserve.

The Kids Are All Right is disappointing. It’s not bad, only very much mishandled and misguided and not enough of either to send the entire film up in flames. But it’s not particularly good, either, outside of a few bright spots seen here and there in the casting, and maybe the worst thing that can be said about a work of art is something neutral. If Cholodenko had made a true disaster, then at least it would have elicited a strong reaction from me, which is preferable to a lukewarm response, the verbal equivalent of casually shrugging one’s shoulders. But apart from being somewhat baffling, the film feels somewhat light and listless when it could have been socially conscious and topical art worth arguing over. I admire Cholodenko’s effort, but everything she does here sadly adds up to a missed opportunity that she should have been able to strike gold with.

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Kids Are All Right, 2010, dir. Lisa Cholodenk

  1. Finally someone not drooling in amazement over this wildly overrated movie! :P I didn’t find this movie nearly as good as most people seemed to make it sound. I didn’t find it funny and was mildly bored throughout. While the performances are good, I thought Bening’s was probably the weakest of the main three, add that to the fact that she is basically playing the same character she has always played and I have been at a loss for words as to why she has received so much acclaim.

    • Agreed. Glad somebody else agrees as well. I flat out didn’t like this movie at all. It bored me out of my mind. I’m still dumbfounded by the praise it received. Just not funny, boring, mediocre writing at best.

      And I agree about Bening as well. She did nothing special except pretty much be herself in this movie. The same thing she’s done time and time again, yet she gets so much praise. I’m like: it was nothing special at all.

  2. Wow. Stole the words right out of my mouth. When the movie was over I just went “that’s it?”. Plus I was really rubbed the wrong way with how Mark Ruffalo’s character was resolved. Also on a unrelated note, are you planning to see I Saw The Devil? That movie looks amazing.

    • Castor, the humor definitely didn’t work for me consistently, either. In fact I can only think of two or three moments that actually made me laugh– which is probably why I don’t touch on the film’s humor that much. It’s almost nonexistent. As for Bening, she’s a veteran actress playing what is admittedly a pretty brave role that pertains to a pretty hot button contemporary social issue, and that’s probably enough to get her props from the socially conscious older and younger sets.

      Blain, that was more or less my reaction. And yeah, I thought the resolution to Paul’s arc was incredibly cruel in its briskness; he’s discarded, and that’s the end of it. If the rest of the film is just missing on a degree of nuance, then that moment absolutely obliterates any sense that it does manage to bring to bear. As for I Saw the Devil, yes, if it comes anywhere near me, you can guarantee I’ll be seeing it.

  3. I didn’t think it was brilliant, but I quite enjoyed it. I can’t believe, however, they got away with half the stuff they did. Part of me spent the movie wondering, if – for example – a gay relationship threatened a straight marriage or a straight couple watched gay porn together, there would be huge waves of controversy. However, as it stands, thsoe elements are just there. If the sexual orientations and dynamics were reversed, I would have imagined a public outcry.

    But, yep, I agree. It’s “light”. It’s not substantial. It isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, but I thought it was decently entertaining and featured three solid performances from actors who can do comedy – though we disagree on Bening and Ruffalo.

  4. Wasn’t as good as I was expecting. The comedy was more of a comedy of errors which was kind of bummer, considering this looked like a genuine film, considering the talent involved and the trailer. But anyways good movie none the less, and good review my mans!

    • That’s an interesting point, Darren. While we’ve actually seen exactly what you’re describing– a homosexual relationship threatening a straight one– it’s only come up in mainstream pictures as a comedic element (in I Love You, Man) without showing the full repercussions of that intervention. I can only imagine that mainstream audiences (and the hateful homophobic population this country so tragically provides a voice to) would be up in arms over a reverse version of Cholodenko’s film, though I suspect a number of them would embrace it as proof supporting their irrational hatred of and paranoia toward gays and lesbians, arguing that exposes their alleged deviance. As far as the principles, I really just couldn’t stand Ruffalo and Bening most of the time they were on screen. They were lifeless. Ruffalo wakes up when his affair with Moore gets exposed in the last act, and he’s pretty goddamn good there, but he’s just listless the rest of the time.

      Dan, I think that’s really it for me. It just didn’t hold up to the expectations I had for it. Forget about what I expected it to be about, I just thought it would turn out to be a good, rewarding experience, and yet it fell completely flat for me. Agree on the “comedy of errors” bit, but at the same time, that comedy wasn’t even all that funny! This really could have been a much, much tighter, insightful, and funny film. Kind of a shame, that’s a waste of good talent on all sides.

  5. This post actually got me to rethink Moore’s performance. It was very tick-y, but I just remember the scene when Jules imitates Paul and Laser’s facial mannerisms. There’s something more to be desire, but it’s a different step for her.

    Bening is still the star of the movie, Nic being her penultimate role. She’s usually either the ‘disillusioned scold’ or has the stoic glow that she has in The American President. In TKAA, Nic’s the latter even if the former creeps up on her words every now and then. Even in that big reveal scene, it’s line watching a finely tuned instrument playing a regular person.

    My runner up for the VIP is Wasikowska. So naturalistic. I guess this movie’s more rooted in performance than plot, but then that’s most of Cholodenko’s work. You can connect the dots between this movie and Laurel Canyon, which makes for decent work even if it’s not great or Oscar worthy.

    • I don’t have a problem with the movie being based in character more than plot, though I would disagree with the notion that this is a character rather than plot-based film. I have a problem with how Cholodenko’s plot is kind of a mess and how it shifts gears so abruptly after setting up the story to be about the kids and not the parents. As for Bening, she might be the star, but again, I think that’s entirely the problem; she’s far too subdued here to give Nic any genuine sense of personality. She’s the strict and unfun parent because that’s the role she’s in, not because Bening makes that character truly palatable.

      Agree on Wasikowska. She’s one of the film’s secret weapons.

  6. Wait, were they really named the “Allgoods”? LOL, that’s a piece of hamfistery that I didn’t pick up on before. Not that it changes my opinion, but, LOL. Thats some hack quality shit right there.

    I think the whole point behind the film was that family is family, no matter who how or why, and the more you struggle and fight through it, the more value it obtains. I’m sure the genesis was the normalcy of the lesbian couple family, hence the title, and the thing that really elevates it are the actresses. I really liked it.

    In other news… You mention “American Beauty” with lesbians. I’m wondering where you stand on “Beauty”. I searched but came up blank.

    • They are, and it is, though it’s the least pressing of the movie’s issues.

      I just found Bening to be flat. I didn’t for a second feel like she brought anything resembling genuine emotion for and understanding of her character to the set, though I wonder if maybe Moore is so much more “on” here that Bening’s performance– while fine– looks bad by comparison. The rest of the cast– including only half of Ruffalo since he phones it in until the last act– does great, but great performances can’t always rescue a weak narrative.

      The problem with the idea that “family is family” is that that’s not what the film’s interested in; if it is, then Ruffalo’s resolution seems even more cruel by contrast as he’s kind of brutally kicked to the curb. Not that I don’t agree with your sentiment, I just don’t think the film feels the same way, or else Cholodenko would have found a place for the kids’ biological father in their lives. (Frankly, I think the way that the movie holds him responsible for Jules’ infidelity is totally unearned and a bit disgusting. Not that he’s the good guy here, mind.)

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