Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review of The Kids Are All Right

One of the best movies of 2010, and the performances (including Ruffalo, who's all laid back cool) are friggin' amazing. Of course, this review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with the loving permission of the one and only, Trina Robba.

Spot a commercial for a movie prominently featuring a gay couple, and it's most likely going to be a wacky comedy or a somber lecture with nice production values. Directors and writers have spent so much time on effeminate gestures and messages that they've overlooked something: Gay couples are just as boring as their straight counterparts. For every couple hatching a La Cage aux Folles-inspired scheme, there are thousands watching TV in their sweats or mulling about what toppings to get on their pizza.

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is a bracing reminder that being in a committed relationship is a relentless test, regardless of sexual orientation. Over some 20 years together, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have created a suburban lifestyle featuring a beautiful house and two teenagers. The counterculture signs are few and far between. Despite his wacky name, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is a star athlete who looks the part; blonde, studious Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is a National Merit Scholar who spends her free time playing Scrabble. Even the moms are decidedly non-edgy, unless you count the graphic t-shirts Jules favors. But those can be found at the juniors' section in Kohl's. Nic is a doctor, for crying out loud.

Nic and Jules have reached an amiable, boring middle. Pornography, man-on-man surprisingly, now gets them going in the bedroom. The kids, especially Joni, are starting to chafe under their affection and orders to write thank-you notes. Nic's responsible, business-like approach clearly irritates Jules, whose latest, misguided adventure is landscape design. "It's proactive that you bought the truck," says Nic, exercising extreme diplomacy, about Jules's purchase. Everything is limping nicely along until a curious Laser asks Joni to chase down their biological father. The teens were conceived by artificial insemination, and 18-year-old Joni is now old enough to make first contact.

She does, and the kids connect with the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a restaurateur, who is adult cool: stylish, successful, and with an indifference that eases into sexy confidence. Nic and Jules learn of the covert meeting, and request he visit for dinner. "Let's kill him with kindness, and put it to bed," Nic tells Jules. But a guy like Paul doesn't lie down easily. Except for Nic, who distrusts his growing presence, Paul charms everyone. Jules designs his backyard, which allows their dinnertime rapport to blossom. Laser shoots hoops with him, and Joni, who's falling under his rebellious spell, lends a hand at his organic farm.

Since Cholodenko downplays Nic and Jules's gayness, it's not surprising that she and co-writer Stuart Blumberg create characters that aren't easily categorized as good or bad. You're compelled to watch as Nic, Jules, and everyone else stumble through this brewing familial crisis. Paul has a good heart, but he can't align it with his raging libido. He provides a steadying influence for Laser and an eco-friendly buddy for a clearly smitten Joni, but mistakes that as a call to change his lifestyle. Nic's role as the family's taskmaster automatically makes her the bad guy, but it's why she's a great parent. Her last attempt to bond with Paul—singing Joni Mitchell songs, heaping excessive praise on his food—shows how much she cares about her family's happiness. So does her reaction when everything falls apart. Jules feels that Nic doesn't appreciate her anymore. She's correct. Her use of Paul as a form of vengeance, however, is wrong and she knows it.

These are juicy roles for the three talented leads, and they all have a field day. Ruffalo captures Paul's charisma and oily self-confidence in an effortless stroke; you keep asking if it's OK to like him. Moore, always a versatile talent, acts with such glee and vivacity that I was floored to learn she turns 50 in December. Seeing her perform with Bening, who doesn't act here as much as live through this suburban tumult, is a treat. How often do you get to see one of them onscreen with a great script? Considering that Bening acts in movies with about the same frequency as the Olympics, getting her and Moore together is a major accomplishment for Cholodenko.

It's not the only one. Bitingly funny and achingly real, The Kids Are All Right also serves as a challenge to filmmakers: Ditch the social-sexual politics and the buffoonery that you've associated with gay America; just make movies about people. Do that, and like Cholodenko and Blumberg, you may produce something special. [R]

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