Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lesbian Marriages Are Hard, Too: The Kids Are All Right

Paul is a hippie-chic entrepreneur whose aptly named restaurant WYSIWYG (more on that later) serves organic cuisine. Paul is also the father, biologically speaking, of Joni and Laser, the teenage children of longtime lesbian couple Nic and Jules. If the irony of that situation isn’t obvious, let’s spell it out: Paul, the all-natural guy, has helped to harvest a family (through the donation of his sperm) that couldn’t grow without artificial assistance. In another film, this would serve as a Bible-thumping condemnation of gay parenthood in the spirit of that tired protestation that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But in The Kids Are All Right it’s a nudge to reconsider how families are raised – less through sperm and eggs than through love and togetherness. Nic, Jules, Joni and Laser aren’t an organic family in the scientific sense, but that doesn’t make them any less genuine. Thus it’s only appropriate, not to mention refreshing, that Lisa Cholodenko treats this two-mom family like it sprang from the earth, rather than observing Nic and Jules’ household like some experiment in a Petri dish.

In that respect, the normalcy of The Kids Are All Right is something to celebrate – a welcome liberation from the so many films and TV shows that can’t observe homosexuals without obsessing over their exoticism. Alas, in other situations the familiarity of this family drama is something to bemoan, because all too often The Kids Are All Right blasts right by normalcy in favor of cliché. Given its rather unusual storyline about lesbian wives grappling with the challenges of couplehood and their kids’ sudden curiosity about their sperm-donor daddy, Cholodenko’s film is remarkably predictable – less because it’s faithful to human nature than because it’s slave to convention. (Spoilers ahead.) For example … of course Nic and Jules are polar opposites, one of them a professionally driven anal retentive, the other a big-dreaming but mostly unfruitful free spirit. And of course Paul, the unshaven motorcycle-riding Zen master, is at first a welcome antithesis to parental obsession until eventually, inevitably his lack of discipline and parenting experience sends Joni and Laser back to the bosoms of the moms they have a tendency to take for granted. And of course it’s not enough for Paul to tear at the fabric of Nic and Jules’ family just by entering the picture 18 years after his sperm donation, the plot requires that he actually has to screw one of the moms, too – because how to evoke the struggles of companionship and parenthood without a trite sex triangle? Repeatedly in The Kids Are All Right, what first seems like an attempt to demystify the two-mom family turns out to be lipstick on the pig of hackneyed devices. How unfortunate.

The good news is that Cholodenko’s film is so well acted that its uninspired design hardly matters. For starters, Mia Wasikowska (who was the only thing wonderful about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson bring perfect balance to (half-)siblings Joni and Laser, suggesting both mounting adult confidence and nagging adolescent insecurity – achieving the latter without resorting to the boldface hair-tugging/stammering antics employed for similar effect by Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Then there’s Annette Bening, whose tight-as-a-drum facial expressions say as much about Nic’s desire for order as any of her character’s priggish rules and regulations, and there’s Julianne Moore, an actress with no fear of the extreme (see: A Single Man), who smartly avoids turning the good-vibesy Jules into an extra from Hair. Together, Bening and Moore create a relationship that feels lived-in and full of baggage, which is especially impressive given that, according to the screenplay, Nic and Jules are yet another on-screen couple who seem to have little in common beyond a shared love of their children, a disgust with their partner’s quirks and a disenchantment with their sex lives. (Sound too familiar?)

But the film’s greatest perofrmnace is delivered by Mark Ruffalo as Paul, who has the hairy sexuality of Burt Reynolds, the motorcycle coolness of the Fonze and that palate of a Top Chef finalist. It’s a role that 15 years ago might have gone to someone like Harry Connick, Jr., who would have played the role faithfully but not been able to give it nuance we get from Ruffalo, who is easily one of the best actors working today. The joy of Ruffalo’s Paul is that he’s neither a hero nor a villain, always something in between. He’s genuinely well-intending, but he’s also sincerely naïve. Paul doesn’t understand the complexities of teenagers, for example, which is why he’s always trying to wrap his arm around Laser. Cholodenko’s screenplay sometimes uses Paul as a conflict device more than anything, but thanks to Ruffalo the character remains unaffected and true. Even in the rather clumsy moment late in the film in which Paul expects Laser to share a “Women!” shoulder shrug with him after Nic has screamed at Paul for infringing upon her marriage and family, Ruffalo makes the moment at least convincing enough.

Alas, all this talk of Paul brings us back to his affair with Jules, which brings us back to another way that Cholodenko’s screenplay seems all too conventional: its approach to sexuality. At the risk of implying that sexuality itself is without complexity and/or that a film about a lesbian couple has some sort of moral obligation to stay gay, as it were, isn’t it at least odd that The Kids Are All Right has more depictions of heterosexual sexual activity than the homosexual variety? For the most part, when Nic and Jules’ sexuality is referenced, it’s for comedic purposes and nothing more, most notably in the scene in which Jules fumbles around beneath the sheets like mechanic working in the dark while Nic, glasses on, squints at male homosexual porn on the TV across the room, or in the scene in which Jules describes how she met Nic – going to the doctor with a numb tongue (really!?), only to be cured by Nic according to, you know, holistic means. Not to be forgotten is the cringe-inducing moment when Nic tells Paul she needs his parenting advice like she needs “a dick in my ass” – a line that falls so flat that not even a TV sitcom laugh-track could save it. The only time that Nic and Jules are allowed a moment of straight-faced intimacy is when Nic runs a bath for Jules, but, yep, the moment ends before it can begin. Contrast all of that with a few scenes in which we watch Jules moaning in orgasmic bliss while she fucks Paul with reckless abandon. There’s humor in those scenes, too, of course, but there’s also the suggestion that Jules’ emotional anguish is easily remedied by the pleasure of a good solid dick. Somehow I don’t think that was the intention.

Despite all the film’s faults, and there are many, it’s undeniably affecting, thanks to some simple yet overpowering moments: Nic’s white-noise reaction to discovering Jules’ affair; Jules’ eloquent state-of-companionship apology; and the devastatingly poignant family hug when Joni gets dropped off at college. Those moments work because they are about nothing more than characters behaving honestly, rather than according to the designs of the plot. And, actually, that brings us back to Paul’s restaurant. It’s called WYSIWYG (pronounced “whizzy-wig”), which some of you might know is a tech acronym for What You See Is What You Get. WYSIWYG is the perfect name for an organic restaurant and an even better acronym to describe Paul himself. I give tremendous credit to Cholodenko for coming up with the name and even more credit for never explaining it. The Kids Are All Right is most fulfilling when its characters are subtle puzzles to be solved.


Unknown said...

I pretty much agree with you on this one. There was an interesting character piece here with strong performances all around that gets marred by the mechanics of plot, which seems to make the characters behave unbelievably just for the sake of creating conflict. The thing is that it seems to be done to express the message stated in your headline, which is not exactly an earth-shattering insight.

Not only is the affair not believable, Cholodenko really botches the execution of it further by turning it into a running joke before deciding to finally take it seriously at the very end. It's too bad because they had the cast to make a better film, but this looked like a case where, in an effort to make a more mainstream gay/lesbian film, they actively shot themselves in the foot by employing cheap screenwriting devices to make it more accessible rather than relying on the emotions to do the heavy lifting.

Richard Bellamy said...

This is a perceptive analysis that parallels my feelings about this movie exactly.

Your fifth paragraph is right on. The film totally fumbles in its presentation of sexuality, perhaps playing on some viewers' prurient curiosity about what goes on in the gay bedroom. In fact, as you point out, the film almost suggests that what Nic needs is a man - and that she needs to forget about this lesbian nonsense. The film sets out to be about parenting - no matter who those parents are - and it should have kept its focus there.

Ruffalo and Wasikowska made this movie for me.