Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Kids Are All Right: A Review


Lesbian Is More...

Good intentions don't lead to good comedies. I'd argue that good intentions never lead to good comedies and rarely good dramas. The Kids Are All Right is suppose to be a comedy, and maybe a groundbreaking one at that in that it involves lesbians with children! You can't get funnier than lesbians with children, right? The film has its moments of great acting, but at times to my mind the decisions the characters make or don't make appear to be rather random and chaotic.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are in a committed civil union/domestic partnership. They have two children: Joni (Mia Wasikoska) by Nic, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) by Jules. Both children appear to have adopted aspects of their birth mother's personalities: Joni is more responsible and intellectual, reflecting more of the control-freak Nic is, while Laser appears more laid-back, matching Jules' hippie-dippy mindset. For the most part, they are a functional family, though Jules feels a bit unappreciated by the more successful and dominant Nic: the latter is a doctor while the former has drifted a bit into her new profession as a landscape designer.

Laser wants to meet his sperm donor (father is perhaps a bridge too far), but is too young to do so. Joni, however, is eighteen, so he pressures/persuades her to contact the sperm bank and they contact Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He is a lackadaisical cool dude who is running a successful restaurant/organic garden who has no interest in having anything more than good sex without commitment.

Paul's just going through life, feeling the good vibes, when he gets a call that the deposits he made in 1991 and 1993 want to see him. He agrees, and while the meeting is a bit uncomfortable for the three of them both groups are intrigued enough to keep in touch. Jules & Nic discover what the kids did, and while not pleased they see that it is only natural for their kids to have an interest in where they came from. Paul and Jules do bond, but Nic is still resistant to the man.

As Paul starts to fill a male figure role in Joni & Laser's life, he hires Jules to do some yard work. As with David and Bathsheba, they begin a 'comedic' sexual affair. Nic, unaware of what's going on, decides that she is fighting a losing game and decides to make overtures with Paul whom everyone else likes. To her surprise, Nic finds herself charmed by Paul, especially in a mutual love for Joni Mitchell. However, while in Paul's bathroom she discovers Jules' hair, and the affair.

Confronting her spouse, Jules comes clean, breaking both her spouse and kid's heart. Paul, who has never been interested in having a family, decides that he is in love with Jules, and tries to persuade her to leave Nic and bring the kids with her. Jules, however, makes it clear she is a lesbian, albeit one who likes having sex with men, and will stay. Eventually, on the tense road trip taking Joni to college, both forgive each other and we leave with the idea they can work it out.

The Kids Are All Right seems an odd title (not knowing The Who song and if it relates to the film) since it isn't about Laser and Joni. This is really a story of infidelity and restoration, which would in a sense make Paul the mistress. I'm told that it is a comedy, and I figure the comedy comes from the wild romps Jules and Paul share, from their constant protestations that they won't have sex only to have wild sex. However, I wonder if director/co-writer Lisa Chodolenko with the film written with Stuart Blumberg) were subconsciously tapping into the notion that lesbians like sex with men.

This is the second film where a lesbian character discovers the Joy of Straight Sex (Spike Lee's She Hate Me being the other). I am aware that Miss Chodolenko is a lesbian in real life, but I do wonder just how many lesbians thrill to the sight of Mark Ruffalo's member as Jules did.

To my mind, The Kids Are All Right is really two films: one, the comedy, about Jules getting on with a person of a different gender despite her protests to the contrary, and one, the drama, about Nic dealing with the disenchantment of her family to her form of benevolent dictatorship and the pain of infidelity. There could also be a third film: that of the too cool for school Paul discovering the joys of parenthood. For my mind, the comedy didn't work but the drama did.

I wasn't overwhelmed with Ruffalo. To my mind, he appeared to be playing a similar character here that he did in You Can Count on Me which I don't remember too well since I was falling asleep at it: the guy who drifts through life a little dazed and confused, who talks as if he's coming around from being drugged. Moore seems to develop a penchant for playing lesbians or women with lesbian tendencies (Chloe, The Hours, and now The Kids Are All Right). Why she hasn't become a gay icon is a mystery.

Her performance was excellent in the dramatic scenes: the moment when she appears in front of her family to in essence beg forgiveness is especially tender and wrenching, but when she tries to lighten the mood, she just comes across as a privileged lefty: firing the Hispanic gardener and then saying she did that because she suspected drugs, so remarkably stereotypical and bigoted for a woman who would like a bit more tolerance.

The best performance is from Bening. If you'd like to see how to act without saying a word, take a look at the scene when she returns to the table after realizing her partner has been unfaithful to of all things a man, and a man she doesn't care for in the first place. Her face registers a wide variety of emotions: rage and hurt and heartbreak and dignity one after another. She expresses all the conflicting emotions Nic feels at the situation she finds herself in without having to say anything. As good as this moment is, or when she reacts to Jules' confession, she is also able to express the concern she has for her family even when she appears to not be able to let go.

The actual kids of The Kids Are All Right also show a maturity beyond their years. Wasikoska looks so much like Joni Mitchell she could easily play the songstress in a biopic. Her Joni is a bright girl who is at first impressed by Paul but who sours when she sees what he's done to their unit. Hutcherson's Laser is a bit more easily led and used, a bit insecure by who he is.

However, what I wondered about Joni & Laser in The Kids Are All Right was about their best friends: both of them picked very peculiar people whom they appear to have nothing in common with and who generally behaved in a way that embarrassed them. Therefore, I would wonder why they would want to be with such people. Laser, for example, appears almost always to object to anything his 'best friend' Clay (Eddie Hassell, so achingly close to Eddie Haskell) does: from skateboarding off a roof to finding gay male porn in Laser's parent's room to even trying to urinate on a dog (seriously).

Side note: are lesbians really turned on by watching two men having sex? Not being a lesbian I was just curious, no pun intended. I guess more comedy springs from that, but to be honest it was all escaping me if that was the intent. I was too busy wondering about lesbians and gay porn to concentrate on the laughter it was suppose to inspire.

Come to think of it, I wonder why neither Jules or Nic ever bothered to think that perhaps their children would be in the mildest way curious about their shared sperm donor (I can't really find myself able to use the term 'father', since fatherhood entails so much more than someone's sperm).

While watching The Kids Are All Right, I got the sense that if it were a straight couple (and the hook of the film is that it is a lesbian couple) what comedy there would be would have played better (a straight woman may have marveled with delight & glee at Mark Ruffalo's cock). I also thought that Jules is your standard progressive 'our kids are our friends' type while Nic may be in the closet, as daresay a Republican! That Nic appears to be turning into a functioning alcoholic doesn't help matters or the comedy aspects.

Now, granted, I did laugh a few times: such as when Nic asks Jules after her first romp with Paul, "Did you break ground? Did you dig in?" To me, the subtext was amusing (and I have to hope that they were intented to be double entendres).

If The Kids Are All Right was suppose to be a comedy, I confess to having laughed much. In many ways, it isn't all that clever or original (Jules, for example, doeth protest too much when schtupping Paul). In many ways, the film is pretty predictable in how it's going to go.

Still, Annette Bening gives one of her best performances as the wronged woman, so it has that bonus. I will end by saying that I know quite a few straight men who like Joni Mitchell.

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