Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Kids May Be All Right, But This Movie Sure as Hell Isn't

I just got back from the highly acclaimed The Kids Are All Right, a film about two lesbians (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), their two kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) and the effect meeting the kids' sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) has on the family. The film was, I believe, supposed to be a light, bittersweet romp through the ups and downs of today's modern family. All I felt by the end of the movie, however, was an immense hatred towards everything in this film. How could so much potential be squandered in something as cheap, cloying and unpolished as The Kids Are All Right ends up becoming? I blame most of the films major woes on the script, which has a lot of interesting ideas but doesn't develop them as much as I would have liked to have seen. A lot of the time, I couldn't tell if director Lisa Cholodenko was purposely leaving relationships and key ideas vague to challenge us to fill in the blanks or if they were simply left out for whatever reason. First of all, the family didn't feel at all cohesive. The film explains that Nic (Bening) gave birth to Joni (Wasikowska) while Jules (Moore) birthed Laser (Hutcherson) a couple years later and, for the most part, that bond between mother and child is heavily prevalent. So much so that the film gives no indication about the relationship between the mother and the child that they didn't birth. They all seem to live in this vacuum where this issue isn't addressed or even thought about, yet something is lacking between Nic/Laser and Julies/Joni. Cholodenko takes great pains in staging the actors during the opening dinner scene so that Nic/Joni and Jules/Laser are shown together in the same shots, so it's not as if she's oblivious that this dynamic exists.

With the introduction of Paul into the picture, the holes only grow larger and more intolerable. One of the biggest that sticks out is the relationship between Joni and Paul. Joni initially has no interest in meeting Paul and only makes contact with him to appease the curious Laser. After she meets him, however, she becomes smitten and announces that she wants to continue seeing him. What she sees in him, we never know, for all that follows are scenes between them where she gazes adoringly at him while he talks about vegetables. There is a hint that she may be sexually attracted to him, as she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her "slutty" (I use that in quotes because I talk like her every day and I don't think she was that horrible) friend's comments about how she'd like to fuck him. But, as with a lot of the film, that possibility is never explored. Another angle that didn't feel fully developed was the dynamic between Nic and Paul. There's a major plot development that forever strains their relationship, but before that, Nic is not exactly his biggest fan. Part of that can be explained by the fact she feels like everyone in the family has turned against her and towards him, but there's another issue that is never fully explained. Paul and Jules, with their "la-di-da" attitudes toward life and work, are incredibly similar, more similar than anyone in the film is willing to admit. Does Nic see this, and is rejecting Paul her way of expressing her dissatisfaction with her relationship with Jules? This is all conjecture, but I'm grasping at straws as to what the film is aiming to say with this relationship.

The film's major turning point, an affair which suddenly erupts between Paul and Jules, is also the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of my reaction towards the film. First of all, the tone of these scenes is completely wrong and, to an extent, even grossly offensive. The Kids Are All Right is supposed to be about the love in this cohesive family unit, so why are the sex scenes between Moore and Ruffalo full of slapstick moments trying to make the audience laugh? Sure, these moments are funny, but you feel dirty afterward because all you can think about is that fact that she is fucking CHEATING on her spouse while being funny. This is not an appropriate moment for levity, especially since Nic has done nothing worthy of being cheated on. And speaking of offensive, why does Jules have to have an affair with a man when she has clearly been established as a lesbian throughout the movie? I understand that there's some psychological motivation that goes beyond sexuality, but having her cheat on her spouse with a man plays into the stereotype that a lesbian is a lesbian simply because she hasn't found the right man. Maybe the awkward slapstick was meant to imply that they weren't exactly having the best time together or that something was off about them, but I'll be damned if it didn't sound like they were having the time of their life.

The Kids Are All Right is not a terrible movie by any means--I'd rather watch it than StarStruck ever again, that's for sure--but there are simply too many flaws to blindly ignore. Another edit of the script to tighten plot holes and make the dialogue sound less forced and on-the-nose would have made this film a pleasure to sit through instead of one where I was gritting my teeth through numerous, infuriatingly clumsy mistakes. C


Adam M. said...

Oh my. It's as if we watched two different movies! I left the theater thinking "Wow, I can't think of a single significant flaw in that film!" I thought it was just wonderful--realistic, hilarious, witty, challenging, lithe, not preachy in the least... just so refreshing.

"the family didn't feel at all cohesive... the film gives no indication about the relationship between the mother and the child that they didn't birth"

I noticed this dynamic a bit, but it didn't detract from the experience at all for me. I don't think it's unheard of either for a kid to have a closer relationship with one parent over the other, especially if they have a similar traits or understandings (which I think was moreso the point than biological relation). I think both Joni and Laser acted distanced from their "moms"--and rightfully so: isn't that exactly how teenagers are? And the sense of fraying cohesiveness in the family unit was precisely the point. The film was a crossroads, a time of reckoning for every character.

As for "the relationship between Joni and Paul":

I thought this was perfectly played out. Josh may have requested the initial meeting (the implication was that he was wanting a male figure in his life), but Joni and Paul were the ones that clicked. I thought this was very clear. What she saw in him was an interesting, down-to-Earth guy with whom she made a personal connection--and who was also her biological father! Of course she'd be intrigued.

"There is a hint that she may be sexually attracted to him, as she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her "slutty"... friend's comments about how she'd like to fuck him."

I think it's a tacky temptation to draw a sexual connection between Joni and Paul. The fascination she showed for Paul was for him as a person, as a model, and as a father. He represented for all the family members an external unknown--an infringement, but also an intriguing "what if."

Joni's "slutty" friend (I use the quotes not because she's normal per se, but because she's obnoxiously insecure and "all talk.") supported the film's depiction of using purely superficial expression to avoid deeper issues and connections. (Joni, meanwhile, was mortified because her friend was talking gratuitously about her FATHER.)

This also explains the sexual relationship that develops between Paul and Jules. I think you completely, completely, completely missed the point here. Jules wanted to feel loved (Nic had become cool and distant), and Paul had been stuck in middle-aged bachelor mode, acting on impulse without serious consideration. Their tryst challenges any rigid idea of sexual orientation we might have (as does the uncomfortably riotous gay porn bit--which I still don't get for the life of me... and I probably don't want to know!)--but thematically, it's just both of them avoiding deeper conflicts or deficits in their respective lives.


Adam M. said...


"Another angle that didn't feel fully developed was the dynamic between Nic and Paul."

I completely disagree. Nic felt threatened by Paul. She didn't want to disrupt what she felt was a stable family unit--even though in reality, she was keeping the lid on boiling tensions. Jules responded more favorably because that's precisely who she is: more open-minded, and also attracted to the idea of change. Once Nic comes to her senses and realizes that she should give Paul a fair shot, she too opens her mind. I thought this turning point was brilliant: until here, Nic felt overbearing and even neglectful (that's why we could laugh at the Paul/Jules sex romps). Then she believably develops reason, and our perception of who is "the bad guy" is quite vigorously thrust onto Jules (and, increasingly so, Paul). By the end, all three adults share blame and, more importantly, LEARN from it. (The kids even get a piece of the overall blame--Joni for harboring angst, Laser for not acting in his own best interests--and they also learn and grow from the criss-crossing dynamic frenzy.)

Another more common complaint that I fully disagree with is that the film uses Paul as a narrative impetus and then disposes of him. The family may reject him in the end (how could he stay in the picture at this time after what happened between him and Jules?), but Paul is quite positively transformed by his experience. He understands the importance of deeper human relationships and prepares to get a grip on his own life and steer it in a more meaningful direction.

Everyone is so real in this film. And everyone interacts in believable (and yes, very funny) ways to learn from one another and change for the better by the end--all without feeling the slightest bit imposing or didactic and still allowing us to reexamine so much about the human experience, including our knee-jerk assumptions and opinions of it. Quite the marvel, I thought!


yeah, i saw a different movie to. I saw the one Adam saw. sort of.

but i also agree that Joni was attracted to Paul... at least in an abstract way. That's sort of the thing with him. He's pretty much a blatantly obvious carnal presence -- the open shirts, the motorcycle, the polyamorous affairs -- and this totally shifts Joni's own dynamic since she's at the age when she needs to start dealing with this (like that great scene where she kisses her male friend)

Dame James said...

Thanks for the loooooong comment. Here are a couple follow-up responses:

-Okay, I am willing to admit that I may have been looking for signs of Joni's sexual attraction to Paul because I was thinking how that would make for a much more interesting movie. It would be like Fish Tank but even more twisted.

-I don't buy the argument that Nic was horrible enough to warrant not only an affair but an affair that we were allowed to laugh at. Sure, there were some communication issues, but those were fixable. She doesn't deserve the audience's condemnation.

-I think I completely, completely, completely got the point re: Jules & Paul's affair. I just thought it was poorly thought out.

-"The human experience"? Really? I can't believe you had the balls to actually type that.

Adam M. said...

I suppose what I meant by "the human experience" was, what? Society? Life? Consciousness? I thought the film conveyed, without strain or effort, all the little, unexpected ways that IT can differ from an automatic "heteronormative" perspective. (How do you question the audacity of someone, for example, if there are no balls to refer to? What happens in a world where "male" and "toughness" are not so clearly entwined?) Clever, endearing, and actually quite profound, I thought.

(Sorry for the lengthy initial response. Pithiness is also my weakness.)