Thursday, December 16, 2010

The feminine prerogative: 8 notes on Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right

1) Currently, The Kids Are All Right enjoys a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and yet it still (spoiler alert) ends with a group hug. The film views like a top-notch television drama with many touching moments of sundering and reconciliation.

2) Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the movie mostly focuses on a middle-aged lesbian couple Jules and Nic (played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, respectively). They are so emotionally aware, so sensitive to each other's needs from scene to scene, so in touch with their feelings, the movie kept making me laugh. It's ironic that the storyline ultimately concerns infidelity, because neither Jules nor Nic can scarcely say a word without gauging the other's reaction.

3) Then, like thunder, Mark Ruffalo enters the picture as Paul, the sperm donor, who strikes up a friendship with his biological children (the teenage Joni--and former Alice--Mia Waskikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) who have been raised by their biological mothers, Jules and Nic.
With only his motorcycle, his co-op garden, and his organic restaurant, Paul still proves a threat to Jules and Nic's fragile accord. Can this movie allow a man, even such a laid back Californian like this one, to impose his masculine prerogative on things? NO!!! He may not. That's the film's agenda in a nutshell.

4) That said, Paul does try to weaselly insinuate himself into the Jules and Nic household, using his biological connection to try to establish retroactive family ties.

5) Meanwhile, Laser befriends a crude punk named Clay (Eddie Hassell) who likes to jump on top of (and fall off of) dumpsters with his skateboard when he's not urinating on a stray dog's head. Oddly, Laser prefers to listen to Paul, not his mothers, when it comes to dumping Clay. Perhaps because he didn't have to raise them, Paul can teach the teenagers ways to gain their independence, but he's cast from the household as an interloper all the same.

6) Given the film's many strengths (especially the acting, the witty screenplay, and its emotional honesty), I still wonder if the critics like this movie in part because it affirms their enlightened political views, not to mention the importance of eating locally, driving a Prius, and wearing Birkenstocks sandals and/or Converse sneakers. Does a movie's Rotten Tomatoes approval rating shoot up if a Volvo SUV appears in several of its scenes?

7) I wish The Kids Are All Right had a little more edge, a greater willingness to mock its politically correct, green, extremely sensitive California ethos. That is why Bening's portrayal of Nic's anger is so crucial. At times, in her scene-stealing fury, she threatens to turn all of the prevailing liberal pieties on their heads. As she hilariously says one night at a restaurant with Jules and friends:

"Just fucking kill me, okay? I'm sorry guys, but I just can't with fucking hemp milk and the organic farming and if I hear one more person say they love heirloom tomatoes, I'm going to fucking kill myself, okay? And did you know that we're composting now? Oh yeah. Oh no, don't throw that in the trash. You have to put it in the composting bin where all of the beautiful worms will turn it into this organic mulch and then we'll all feel good about ourselves. I can't do it, okay? I can't fucking do it."

8) Ultimately, The Kids Are All Right left me all ready to burp, scratch my belly, and eat a Big Mac while watching college football. Do we have any Funyuns in the house?

10 comments:

Craig said...

I literally just finished watching this no more than 15 minutes ago (before I read your review), and I couldn't agree more. Lots of things to like, yet some of those very things clash with the schema of the screenplay. Paul may have been written to be a "weasel," but Ruffalo doesn't play him that way. There's more complexity and longing in his performance (and Moore's, and Bening's) than the filmmakers seem to know what to do with.

I don't think the movie is anti-male so much as it holds a typically contemptuous and condescending view of singlehood: Despite celebrating an unconventional family unit, it's as reactionary as any traditional Hollywood movie in depicting marriage as something to defend at all costs, and single guys as unsatisfied gadabouts too lazy to put forth the effort to make a relationship "work." Paul's accused of being an interloper, yet they're the ones who infringed on his life. Watching movies like this make me miss the wit and wisdom of Paul Mazursky, whose Down and Out in Beverly Hills revolved around a bum seducing every woman in another man's household and everyone coming out okay.

Edward Copeland said...

You are way too kind to it. If it didn't have the talented cast it did, its predictable nature, structural weakness and sluggish direction would be even more obvious and it wouldn't be as overpraised as it is. I happened to have reviewed it today as well.

FilmDr said...

Good point about the treatment of singlehood, Craig. There's still the point that Beverly Hills still has a strong masculine slant, and so does Boudu Saved from Drowning. I like the strong feminine agenda of The Kids Are Alright, but I still couldn't help feeling a little ideologically manipulated by the end of the movie (and I disliked the sentimental and slightly indirect ending). Are the children's growth all that important, or is the movie chiefly interested in maintaining the marital status quo? As much as anything, the film seems to be very much about people in their forties trying to retain their hipness.

Thanks, Ed. I look forward to reading your review. I don't agree that the direction is sluggish, however. Cholodenko deserves credit for drawing such excellent performances from her actors.

Craig said...

Looks like everyone saw this at the same time. You can tell the week something comes out on Netflix.

Dan Callahan also just wrote about The Kids Are All Right over at The House Next Door. This passage sums up what I was trying to say:

"This is very tricky material to parse, mainly because the movie is telling us one thing in dialogue and showing us quite another visually. From what we see, Moore's character is unhappy with her partner (Annette Bening), and going back to her at the end feels like a mistake. I'm assuming that Cholodenko didn't intend it to play this way, and so she forces her movie to end where it's supposed to at the expense of the Ruffalo character, who is cruelly discarded and left outside looking in, which doesn't seem fair or merited."

Simon said...

Bening's dinner speech was like a Hallelujah chorus in the middle of the movie. I'm as liberal as the next guy, but I hate when people are so fucking smug about it.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Craig.

A thought-provoking interpretation, and yet it still sounds like a male critic bemoaning why Paul had to be marginalized. I don't think Cholodenko is necessarily interested in being fair to Paul or Clay (and Laser has special privileges because he's their son). Paul must be evicted because of what he represents--patriarchal oppression and the dangers of riding motorcycles. As such a big gardener, he's a particularly "fecund" oppressor too.

I wonder about the movie's treatment of vegetable growth as it relates to procreation. Paul appears surrounded by the fruits of his harvest, a man of the earth! Then, soon after Jules offers to bring fecundity to his backyard, she finds herself unable to not sleep with him. What's going on here? And then later, the ladies cast him aside, with Nic making speeches about the disgusting worms of composting. Is the movie ultimately anti-growth? Could it be that The Kids Are NOT All Right? That it would be better if the couple did not breed at all? They could have spared themselves a lot of grief. Certainly, there's an interesting ambivalence at work here.

I agree, Simon. I think of myself as liberal too, but by then, the movie badly needs that speech.

Big Mama Melville said...

I watched this movie last night and was eager to see if The Film Dr. had anything to say about it. As I read through the notes and then the comments on the notes, I became increasingly surprised and disappointed--first, because TFDr. seems to let the critical approval rating focus his comments more than the film itself--a framework that has been a real strength in other posts (the entry on Australia in particular)--but then because that focus seems to blur considerably his attention to the film's most interesting operations. Throughout the film, for example, there are shots at the smugness of the upper-middle class characters who perform rather than believe in the eco-fabulous lifestyles they claim. Paul's character highlights their hypocrisy at the start when they misunderstand his good nature and trip over themselves to demean his actualization of ideals they pretend to care about. As for the anti-singlehood stance many of the other readers note, Moore's speech about marriage strikes me as significantly complicating those claims. While it does seem clear that Paul doesn't understand how marriage and family happen (his kooky plea to "just do this thing" and run away with the kids and Moore), the film strongly implies that nobody knows how love relationships form and survive (or exactly how erotic desire manifests! "counter-intuitive," indeed)--or why people continue to stay in the "fucking marathon" of "weird projections" marriage is. Bening's hard ass, door-slamming declaration that this is "[her] family, not [his]" comes off as pitiable, an easy way to assert a modicum of control over a life in which she constantly fails her family emotionally rather than as the film's position on Paul, who is endearing and flawed in very different ways. So anyway, there's my two cents. I'll keep reading!

FilmDr said...

Excellent points, Big Mama.

I realize how I sometimes let my reaction to a critical consensus color my response to a movie. It partially happens because I'm looking for a way to write something different, but just knocking a film because most everyone else loves it is a shallow reason.

I still couldn't help wondering, however, how much self-congratulatory politics play a role in all that critical adoration.

Bening's character is emotionally cut off in some ways, but she does have a point. I was struck by the way Paul wants to have a family subtly, although I imagine in real life, resolving what to do with him would have been more complicated than just kicking him out forever. Cholodenko opens up many cans of worms, and the conclusion does seem a bit convenient in the way if shifts to the daughter
leaving for college.

I also find it difficult to separate the weaknesses of the character Nic from the strengths of Bening's amazing performance of her. I hope she wins the Oscar for Best Actress.

Big Mama Melville said...

Thanks for the kind response, Film Doctor, and please don't feel you need to explain why you explored the critical unanimity--it certainly is suspicious when the divided suddenly unite, especially around a film that doesn't comply with most expectations. I share your hopes about Bening, but I will try to stuff those hopes into the cracks of my heart because, after Reese Witherspoon beat out Felicity Huffman some years back, well, let's just say I learned my lesson.

As for The Paul Situation, I was most curious about what you and your blogees might be saying about him. To me, the film strongly suggests that Laser seeks him out (we discover the plan to find the donor after Laser watches longingly his idiot friend wrestle around with his macho shithead father) in hopes of finding a man he can connect with in traditionally manly ways--Laser loses interest in Paul (and anticipates his mothers' initial dismissal of him as full of himself)when Paul admits he never cared for team sports. Even with a motorcycle and women dropping their drawers for him left and right, he hardly fits the typical masculine idea of A Man. He does, after all, seduce Jules with a bite of his pie, in his kitchen and not, as another film might have had it, in Kitchen Stadium or the like. Anyway, I like the film's messiness. I don't think the daughter going to college fixes the problem between the women; I think the film shows us the way shared pain can force people back to each other. Laser's final comment in the car on the way home, that the two shouldn't break up because they are "too old," also provides an explanation of the not very romantic ways people stay married: because they are used to each other, because they are too old and tired to start all over with someone else who may not tolerate how messed up they are.

Paul, for me, remains the most interesting loose end, though. I don't think he would cause a stink after his expulsion--he's too devastated (hell, I was too devastated) by Joni's musing that she thought he would "be better," and really nothing apart from his impudent comments to Nic in the driveway post-motorcycle ride indicate he's a fighter rather than a lover. I think his story begins at the end of the movie. He's great at intimacy, but marriage and family, as we are shown via Nic and Jules, entail far more ingredients, many very unattractive and completely irrational, than sincerity and sensitivity. The readiness with which he equates desire for family with maturity in his break up speech with the gorgeous hostess (Claudia? Chloe? I can't remember her name) earns his "fuck you" from her and, I think, contributes to the movie's general unsettling of either ideal, married or single.

Of course, after reading all the posts on this blog, I'm scared to rewatch the movie and see it condemning Paul as a representative of the contemporary heterosexual guy--but good discussions really ought to make a body scared (and willing) to change her mind.

Thanks for this one!

Big Mama Melville said...

And Part II.

Paul, for me, remains the most interesting loose end, though. I don't think he would cause a stink after his expulsion--he's too devastated (hell, I was too devastated) by Joni's musing that she thought he would "be better," and really nothing apart from his impudent comments to Nic in the driveway post-motorcycle ride indicate he's a fighter rather than a lover. I think his story begins at the end of the movie. He's great at intimacy, but marriage and family, as we are shown via Nic and Jules, entail far more ingredients, many very unattractive and completely irrational, than sincerity and sensitivity. The readiness with which he equates desire for family with maturity in his break up speech with the gorgeous hostess (Claudia? Chloe? I can't remember her name) earns his "fuck you" from her and, I think, contributes to the movie's general unsettling of either ideal, married or single.

Of course, after reading all the posts on this blog, I'm scared to rewatch the movie and see it condemning Paul as a representative of the contemporary heterosexual guy--but good discussions really ought to make a body scared (and willing) to change her mind.

Thanks for this one!