' ' Cinema Romantico: The Kids Are All Right

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

The Dinner Table Scene is a staple in movies. You know, mother and father and kids sit down to eat and they trade banter and veiled insults and roundabout criticism and the degrees of all this vary according to how dysfunctional the family is and so on and so forth. In director Lisa Cholodenko's film "The Kids Are All Right" there are many Dinner Table Scenes but with a twist. It is a mother and a mother and a son and a daughter. And occasionally the family's sperm donor. Except this twist never functions as a twist. That this is a lesbian marriage is fact, not fodder.

Nic (Annette Benning) is the matriarch. A doctor, a wine connoisseur, practical. Jules (Julianne Moore) is a bit more scatterbrained. She was going to be an architect but that didn't pan out so now she's going to be a landscape gardener. Maybe. She has a truck but no actual landscaping jobs. The son is unfortunately named Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and the daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is set to depart for college in a couple months. Laser gets the bright idea to meet the man who donated the sperm to their moms. This is what they call them. "Moms." As in, "Don't tell moms." Because Joni is 18 and Laser is not she has to make the call to the sperm bank, and so she does.

The sperm donor is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), owner of an organic restaurant (complete with a couple female employees who resemble Foxy Brown and Ani DiFranco), a mutterer and stammerer who often resorts to recitings of "right on" and rides a motorcycle, a vehicle Nic has forbidden her kids from ever riding so....well, you know. "I think if you eased up on the restrictions you'd have less conflict," explains Paul at a particular moment when he should not be attempting to explain anything.

He meets the kids and the kids tell the moms who decide they too want to meet Paul. Nic doesn't much care for him but after Paul asks Jules to help him landscape his disorganized backyard she finds herself drawn to him. Perhaps drawn to him in more ways than one, if you know what I mean.

You really could not ask for three more talented leads and each of them delivers. Benning has this way of turning lines that could be pure ice into being human and funny - "If it was up to you we wouldn't send thank you cards. We'd just send out good vibes." - and makes a singing duet between her and Paul (you'll have to see for yourself) hilariously awkward and surprisingly poignant. It's walking the tightrope and when great actors do it there is nothing better. Meanwhile Moore goes about twelve ways at once which perfectly captures a character that always seems to be going twelve ways at once. Well thought out plans are not her forté. Emotions get the best of her. And Ruffalo is Ruffalo, nervous ticks aplenty, an endless supply of clueless but good hearted smiles. He means well but acting well, achieving well, are, of course, different things.

The movie rarely resorts to cheap shots or stupid laughs and has the chance for an almost perfect open ended conclusion with a speech given by Moore in the living room that does not absolve while still going a ways toward restoring some order. A shot of the family shepherding Joni off to college that suggests they are all entering a kind of brave new world could have capped the proceedings. Ah, but those gifts under the Christmas tree never look as handsome without the bow on top, do they?

This obsession filmmakers have with gift-wrapping their films doesn't make sense to me. And it's not that I dislike happy endings, because I don't, not at all, but you can't go through the wringer that Nic and Jules do and then slap an abritrary "Annie Hall" la-di-da on there. Am I alone?

Oh well. I'll blot out that end because despite it the movie still has a lot to say about the realities of modern families and modern marriages, whether they involve a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and a man. They're about love, sure, but they're also about "slogging through the shit." Remember that, kids.


Andrew K. said...

Ah, cannot wait for this...I'm almost salivating now.

Nick Prigge said...

Despite my gripes about the end it really is a good movie. Particularly the acting. The acting is just fantastic.

Castor said...

Not the kind of movie I would go check in theater but looking forward to this. I know my colleague Red will be very happy to hear you enjoyed it!