**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
screenplay by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
directed by Lisa Cholodenko
by Bill Chambers Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) are the offspring of lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and an anonymous sperm donor named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Nic and Jules shared the burden of pregnancy, and though The Kids Are All Right never comes right out and says who gave birth to whom, the dispositional echoes, subtle shows of favouritism, and even just the kids' names suggest that gynecologist Nic had the overachieving Joni and hippie-dippy Jules bore impressionable, impetuous Laser. But the movie's more intriguing when the dots are harder to connect. Nic, for instance, gets off on watching a tape of two guys fornicating as Jules pleasures her. And Laser has to guilt goodie-goodie Joni into contacting their biological father, yet it's Joni who takes an immediate shine to the man, while Laser sniffs, "I think he's a little into himself"--directly mirroring Nic's subsequent assessment of Paul as "self-satisfied." A critical callback, it shows that Nic and Jules aren't two single mothers sharing a roof à la "Kate & Allie", but parents whose dynamic jointly influences their children. It's also more convincing evidence of their togetherness than their bedtime nicknames for each other ("chicken" and "pony"), which the actresses can barely utter without giving away the blooper reel.
Curiosity stirs Paul like a sleeping dog, and three-quarters of the family soon finds it can't get enough of this organic farmer and restaurateur. (From her perch on the sidelines, Nic aims a few passive-aggressive digs at him as if hoping that will close Pandora's box again.) The feeling's mutual: An independently wealthy man without any familial ties, Paul enjoys having a sudden outlet for his wisdom, such as it is. And though he proves a homewrecker, he has his moments. Chiefly, he reads Laser's one-sided friendship with the bullying Clay (Eddie Hassell) better than Nic and Jules--who make the tunnel-visioned assumption that Laser's gay and check out as soon as they hear different--and voices his low opinion of Clay in a bit of fatherly advice that's hard for Laser to hear but does the trick anyway. But Paul foolishly offers Jules work landscaping his front yard, and Jules foolishly accepts. While pitching her design concepts to him, she observes in Paul one of her son's mannerisms that must've been passed down through genes alone. This acknowledgment of the bizarro intimacy between them soon morphs into sexual tension, leading them to actualize their procreative roles.
It's a point of no return for not only these two, but the movie as well. A promising piece of speculative fiction sparked by co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's decision to have a child with her partner through artificial insemination effectively loses interest in its foundation; Jules's affair with Paul has about it the feeling of a deus ex machina, with adultery being much easier to dramatize--and side against--than donor's rights. Actually, there are two pieces of bait-and-switch going on here: a coming-of-age tale becomes a sex farce; and a gay love story becomes a straight fuckfest. It occurs to me that The Kids Are All Right is almost the same film if Paul has no biological attachment to these children, if he is some generic male influence so charming and charismatic that Jules and co. are helplessly seduced away from Nic. An affair proper would feel no more beside the point under such circumstances, would indeed probably be that much more palatable, having sprung from considerably less fecund--to use a word Paul memorably savours--ground. Really, for Jules's straying to not overwhelm the narrative, Cholodenko needed the sprawling canvas of a TV series--and given that she's subsidized her movie career with stints directing episodic television (much like her contemporary Nicole Holofcener), I wonder if it ever occurred to her to develop the material for cable, which is especially accommodating of high-concept middle-class exoticism.
Curiously, although Cholodenko credits her small-screen experiences with teaching her to shoot quickly (an important skill to have on low-budget features), TV seems to have influenced her in largely negative ways. It's nice that her work has acquired a sense of humour--particularly about itself--since the almost punishingly dour (albeit sexy and sardonic) High Art, but The Kids Are All Right succumbs to the glib rhythms of a sitcom with a jokiness that doesn't defuse sentiment so much as ring with a misplaced ironic detachment. I'm thinking of a scene near the end of the picture where Jules delivers a heartfelt monologue on marriage to rival Moore's full-frontal tantrum in Short Cuts and Nic, flanked by Laser and Joni, clutches her children's hands to keep from crumbling completely--a tableau that will, I reckon, uncannily reflect a certain sector of the viewing audience. But then Jules cracks, "You know, if I read more Russian literature...," and it's a wood-killer, emotionally speaking. I'm thinking of the Mexican worker whose constant sniggering puts a laugh-track on Jules's nooners with Paul, of Jules and Nic's winking critique of girl-on-girl porn as lacking authenticity because the actors aren't gay in real life, of the "Three's Company"-subtle gambit that ends with Nic figuring out Jules and Paul are sleeping together. (Incidentally, Jules's doctor wife might want to prescribe her Propecia.)
Maybe this sophomoric attitude comes from the male half of Cholodenko's collaboration with screenwriter Stuart Blumberg, the ex-"MADtv" staffer who wrote 2004's porn-star fantasy The Girl Next Door. In her commentary track on the Blu-ray release of The Kids Are All Right, however, Cholodenko attributes to Blumberg the film's bittersweet coda, in which Joni irrationally fears that she's driven her moms out of her life by demanding a moment to herself upon arrival in her new college dorm. The delicate observation of this sequence is a bar set too late, though it's by no means the only highlight of a picture that has the wisdom to muffle the sound of dinner conversation as Nic drowns in the realization that Jules is cheating on her. (Bening, a great close-up actor, doesn't even need the assist.) All the talent is there, all the pieces are in place--I just wish Cholodenko had been a little more precious about the execution.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Alliance brings The Kids Are All Right to Blu-ray in a stunningly lucid 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. Honouring the courage of Bening's au naturel appearance and demonstrating that Wasikowska may truly be made of porcelain, the image has incredibly fine, if unsparing, detail, and its filmlike glaze is highly appealing. Director of photography Igor Jade-Lillo makes some strange choices, though, with regards to composition and colour-grading, frequently but inconsistently cropping heads in a manner that went in and out of style with the Matrix trilogy and pinkening skintones so that everyone has the same cinnamon complexion as a never-redder Julianne Moore. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is a pinprick-clear rendering of an inoffensively bland, dialogue-heavy mix occasionally moistened by Carter Burwell's musical themes.
Extras begin with a very listenable feature-length yakker from Cholodenko, whose account of the production encompasses everything from costuming (Jules's litany of vintage T-shirts belong to Cholodenko herself) to red-tape (Joni's school of choice goes unnamed because they couldn't get permission from Stanford, et al) and includes the usual number of woulda/shoulda/couldas from the 20/20 perspective of hindsight. She loves the cast--which isn't surprising, but the specificity of her praise lends credence to the fawning. Three HD featurettes--"The Making of The Kids Are All Right" (3 mins.), "Journey to Forming a Family" (5 mins.), and "The Writer's Process" (2 mins.)--are over before they've begun, and in the case of the latter two that's disappointing, as therein Cholodenko touches on the roots of the project and her collaboration with Blumberg, respectively, two subjects worthy of further exploration. (As for that making-of: pure EPK fluff.) HiDef trailers for the Alliance Blu-ray collection, Somewhere, The American, It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Fighter, and "Breast Fest," a Toronto film festival devoted to breast-cancer awareness, cue up on startup; the stateside release from Focus/Universal is identical save for the opening assortment of previews. Originally published: November 23, 2010.