Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Open House: The Kids Are All Right

For having been together for the better part of two decades, the ever-searching-for-organic-harmony aspiring garden designer Jules (Julianne Moore) and her no-nonsense Dr Nic (Annette Bening) are faring well. We meet them during what seems like a spell of marital routine fatigue, yet there’s a sense that neither is willing to go too long without attending to the other’s needs, whether that manifest through Nic giving Jules space to work through her spiritual issues or Jules performing cunnilingus on Nic while she watches hunky guy-on-guy porn, a quirk that makes for what’s surely the movies’ funniest lesbian love scene.

Their teenage kids, meanwhile, are more than all right. Sure, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) hasn’t yet found his calling and is into homoerotic wrestling with a homophobic moron, while seemingly straight-laced Joni (Mia Wasikowska), readying herself for college, goes behind the moms’ backs to track down the siblings’ biological dad, but such minor transgressions reveal a perfectly healthy curiosity and robust sense of good will. So the stakes in
The Kids Are All Right arise not through perilous character flaws or insurmountable familial feuds, but rather through the accumulation of smaller tensions as its story builds, specifically from the introduction of mystery sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) into the family dynamic. A sexy, scruffy restaurateur with a habit of avoiding interpersonal commitments, Paul’s intrigued by his new friends, by the unexpected possibility of being a genuine dad, and, just maybe, by the even stranger possibility of luring Jules away.

Director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko chronicled women shedding off stolid conventional lifestyles to explore the cultural fringe in
High Art and Laurel Canyon. With The Kids Are All Right she now seems interested in seeing what happens when seemingly unconventional lifestyles have become entirely domesticated. Make no mistake, this is a movie about family values that actually values family. Beautifully captured through sinuous, sun-soaked, hand-held photography that seems always alert to the nuances of its superb ensemble, this film’s group portrait is warm, fun, and complicated, its politics left entirely implicit so that these characters can behave like real people instead of mouthpieces—if the film can do anything to persuade its opponents that gay marriage represents any sort of scourge to society, it’s by letting this particular gay marriage simply exist up there on screen, warts and all.

Moore and Bening are so good together that they can be bad to each other without our feeling as though their conflicts are dramaturgical conceits. When called upon to explain the kick they get from guy-on-guy porn, Moore mumbles something about the inauthenticy of most ostensible lesbian porn being an unsexy distraction, but there’s no such distractions to be found in the employment of these two famous actresses, both of them married to men, playing a lesbian couple. Like Hutcherson and Wasikowska, they graciously fail to comment on their sexuality. They focus rather on enriching the storytelling by giving the fullest possible life to these characters, whose dialogue, it must be said, isn’t always very good, and occasionally slips into cliché. It’s no slight to say that Cholodenko’s casting often trumps her writing since this story’s eloquence is in the unspoken aspects of its interactions.

Ruffalo is wonderfully passive-aggressive as the interloper, soft-spoken, entirely sympathetic, yet often on the defense. “I’m a doer,” he says in response to his lack of education. “I’m funny that way, I guess.” It’s unfortunate that Paul gets sort of abandoned in the final act, because in the first two-thirds he’s treated as an equal within the film’s ensemble, developing, making discoveries, and having scenes all his own, entirely outside of those pertaining directly to the family. Moving as gracefully as it does from one busy, diverting and thorny sequence to another,
The Kids Are All Right only starts to reveal its shortcomings in this last section, when it starts to abruptly, somewhat forcedly shut all those doors it previously left wide-open as it searches for resolutions that aren’t entirely needed. So we should see this film not to anticipate closure but to bask in its transitory pleasures, which are plentiful. Kids grow up and leave home, bachelors get middle-aged and anxious, marriages get knocked around and need time to regain their senses. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the fleeting chaos before it all passes you by.

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