REVIEW: The Kids Are All Right

106 Minutes // USA // Focus Features
dir. Lisa Cholodenko
Tuesday, June 18th, 2010 – Cineplex Varsity
starring: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening + Mark Ruffalo

I suppose I should begin with the one that is most fresh in my mind – caught it on Tuesday (which, by this point means I saw it about a month ago…) as opposed to the following two which I had seen earlier in the month – in Sundance hit The Kids Are All Right. Sundance, once a festival devoted to giving small films an opportunity to find distribution, has now been stripped of its autonomous ways and has essentially become a platform for low-budget features with A-listers.  And while the themes of these recent Sundance smashes may appear to have similar themes as the true indies of yore, the execution is anything but identical… and in this case, identical also means good.

We open on a not-so-exciting montage of Laser (Josh Hutchinson) doing “what kids do” with his best buddy Clay to the tune of a Vampire Weekend track. They do cocaine, tip over trash cans while riding down hill on their skateboards and wrestle one and other. At first, Clay doesn’t seem all that harmful a kid. A slightly bad influence, sure, but in later scenes we’re literally told that he is no good for Laser. We see no progression in Clay’s poor behavior – no, in fact all I gathered from watching Clay be Clay is that he’s overcompensating for something which makes him a slight nuisance. But soon enough, Laser’s parents are on him about how detrimental the kid is to Laser’s mind and so on and so forth. This is one of the most primary concerns that writer/director Lisa Cholodenko never deals with appropriate – the development of her characters.

So what do we know about these characters? Well we know Jules is spunky because she named her child Laser. We know Nic is less so because she gave her child the name Joni. These characterizations for the married couple that face romantic turbulence later on is not sufficient in the slightest, but these are the arcs that Ms. Cholodenko perpetuates as truth. It isn’t so much that the characters begin their journeys from an uninteresting place of residence, but rather that the voyage and destination that they arrive at are just as unappealing. The bumps in the road are seen from miles away, the characters react in a consistent way… I’m not faulting the film for being absurd because there is a string of logic that binds the scenes together. It’s just that here – unlike in greater films of a similar nature – what’s logical and what’s entice are not one in the same. In fact, it’s rather what’s logical that feels most cumbersome because scenes become so easy to anticipate that you’ll believe being a clairvoyant is very much in your trade of skills.

If this weren’t enough, there is massive condescension doled out. One of the most irritable aspects in writing of any kind is to utilize expository dialogue to such a high degree that listening to characters speak and knowing how they’re feeling become one and the same. There is no breathing room in this feature. No matter how exhausting situations can become, we as the audience are further intellectually suppressed by how the material is handled. Instead of a line that should be dramatically potent in the realms of the film followed by a scene of a character digesting what has been learned, we get dialogue and cut; dialogue and cut; dialogue and immediate reaction and cut. For a film that seemingly prides itself on being an exhibition of the human condition, we do not see any form of grief for more than a momentary blip before we move on to digesting more plot points and exposition. Suffocated is a good word for how this film left me. To make the obvious association, if you’re looking for a breath of a fresh air go somewhere else.

One of the best examples of this paltry ‘technique’ takes place in one of the worst scenes I’ve had to endure in awhile. Not only is it detrimental as an individual scene, but destructive to the following one. The scene is where Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are in their bathroom, brushing their teeth and literally saying everything that’s going on in their mind. This scene plays out as if Ms. Cholodenko anticipated people beginning her film from that scene. Everything that has happened up to that point in the film has been laid out right in front of you. You can essentially boil this scene down to “I’m sad about our kids liking their sperm donor dad” “Me too… hey, I’ve got a good idea, lets sabotage him at dinner tomorrow – lets kill him with kindness” “Yeah!”. Does the filmmaker not understand that all of this is already understood? Or that if this scene was cut from the feature that the following one where Nic and Jules meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo) for the first time wouldn’t be? The obvious change in opinion about Paul would have tipped the audience off that something amiss was transpiring and it would have made that big moment in the film so much more enjoyable. Instead you’re being told about everything in advance which takes away from the natural curiosity that is meant to be inspired throughout the course of every film.

There, too, is something so inexplicably smug about how the film perpetuates family with homosexual parents. It isn’t a major flaw, but it is something I must address. Whether it’s the title The Kids Are All Right implying that the kids are fine, there’s nothing wrong with them that couldn’t be a possibility in a household with heterosexual parents or the constant referring to Nic and Jules as “momses” instead of parents – for example, one of the kids will says to Paul or each other “Our momses won’t like that” rather than “Our parents won’t like that”. The coyness of never having your characters say the word “parents” is irritating as all hell. Like I said, it isn’t a major concern, but it adds to the idiocy of this. Unbelievable and mechanical wording… once or twice, I get, but every time they refer to their parents its “momses”. Just blatant snideness.

Here is where my greatest criticism of the feature lays: Paul. He plays the sperm donor who is the reason for Joni and Laser’s existence – the man that Laser pleads with his sister to set-up a meeting with because he feels like he’s missing a male role model. Paul is written pretty myopically because despite what Mark Ruffalo (one of the finest actors working today, by the way) brings to the character, he is anointed an air of impertinence, as if the writer is judging that character. Sure enough, despite all of the scenes where Paul is talking about his tragic situation and wishing to better himself because of the current predicament he finds himself devoted to, he is unceremoniously dropped from the film after the climax. So… what about him? He is a vital character and has too many moments divorced from Jules to be a mere catalyst. He is a leading character in the story, but he’s treated like a supporting one when things get hectic. As if the writer decided that there was no way to conclude Paul’s storyline sufficient last minute and just went “Well, no one will really care, he’s not that good of a guy”. Unfortunately, you’ve contradicted your motive by casting the most warming figure in cinema today as that character which made Paul infinitely more relatable and honest than either Nic or Jules, the people we’re meant to root for. In fact, when Nic mocks Paul after their first meeting by calling the guy pretentious and smarmy, I found myself disenchanted with her simply because such a statement about a genial guy like that is major snobbery. It may have seemed funny on paper, but Ruffalo far surpasses what was written. He fills the role with such genuineness that it is absolutely infuriating how his arc is handled. Just bad writing and a major miscalculation on an astronomical level.

The drama isn’t potent; the comedy isn’t comedic; the plotting grows absurd – when you resort to a character wanting to piss on a dog to prove his belligerent, counterproductive impact on another character you know you’re missing the word “subtlety” from your vocabulary. This is a failure on obscene levels. There is only one thing about the feature I can actively condone and that’s the ensemble. From a virulent Julianne Moore in the shoes of a fractured being to all of the compliments I showered Mark Ruffalo with above to a Mia Wasikowska who has a meek incandescence that rivals Amy Adams for “actress you can most sympathize with”… the actors brought their A games. Unfortunately, the script is nothing more than an F.

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