The Kids Are All Right

The Nominations:

  • Actor in a Supporting Role – Mark Ruffalo
  • Actress in a Leading Role – Annette Bening
  • Best Picture
  • Writing (Original Screenplay) – Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg

The Black-and-White:

A review by SpacedCowboy

n.b., this review was written January 23, 2011 – before the Academy Awards nominations were announced. A post-nomination update, written January 27, 2011, is given at the end of this post.

A lot of critics liked this movie. A lot. As an example, reading the “best movies of 2010” columns in Entertainment Weekly, both Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman had The Kids Are All Right as their number 2 movie of the year. And not always do they agree, but this time they did.

Now you can debate whether Lisa and Owen are the best bellwethers of movies, but I do have a fond spot in my heart for them both, as I tend to read EW during my …. morning reading times (if you know what I mean) and many times their thoughts and mine are in total alignment.

But not this time. Kids was a good movie. A fine movie. But a great movie? No.

Here’s a plot synopsis from wikipedia (be warned -it’s long) as of January 14, 2011:

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a lesbian couple living in California. It is not made clear if they are legally married, though Jules refers to herself as “married”. They have each given birth to a child using the same anonymous sperm donor. Within the relationship, Nic, an obstetrician, is the primary breadwinner and the stricter parent, while Jules is more laid back and lives as a housewife, but, after a business failure, is starting up a landscape business. While the couple is happy, and the family functioning well, it is also clear that their relationship has begun to go stale.

The younger child Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is eager to find his biological father, but has to be 18 to find identity of the sperm donor. However, he begs his 18-year-old sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska) to contact the sperm bank in order to meet their biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). The first meeting goes well. Joni is impressed by his bohemian lifestyle and Paul is enthusiastic about being in their lives. Joni swears Laser to secrecy as she does not want to upset their two mothers. However, Jules and Nic are concerned about Laser’s best friend Clay (who uses drugs, torments animals, and does dangerous skateboard tricks) being unsuitable for him, especially if, perhaps, it is a gay relationship. When they question him, he thinks they discovered about Paul, and admits that he and Joni have visited him. Not wanting to be left out of this new development, Jules and Nic invite Paul over to dinner. The atmosphere is awkward but amiable. When Jules reveals that she has a landscape business, Paul offers to let her landscape his back garden. Jules agrees, although Nic does not like the idea.

While working for Paul, Jules likes that he appreciates her work in contrast with the fact that Nic never supported her career. Jules impulsively kisses him one afternoon. They end up in bed together, and begin an affair. Jules is irritated by the smile of her gardener, who suspects something, and fires him. She later realizes that this was not reasonable.

Jules and the kids start spending more time with Paul. Nic believes that Paul undermines her authority over the children, for example by giving Joni a ride on his motorcycle when she has forbidden it and suggesting that she give Joni more freedom. After a heated argument with Jules, Nic suggests that they all have dinner at Paul’s house to appease the situation. Things begin to improve, as Nic relaxes and makes a connection with Paul over their mutual love for Joni Mitchell. During the dinner, however, Nic is shocked to discover traces of Jules’ hair in Paul’s bathroom and bedroom. When they return home, Nic confronts Jules. At first, Jules tries to deny it but then admits to the affair. Nic is devastated, but Jules insists she is not in love with Paul and has not turned straight; she just wanted to be appreciated. The household becomes very tense, with Jules sleeping on the couch. The children are angry at Jules and Paul. Since the relationship between Nic and Jules has deteriorated anyway, Paul suggests to Jules that she leave Nic, bring the kids and come and live with him. Jules passionately declines.

The night before Joni leaves home to go to college, Paul turns up at the house. Nic angrily confronts him, calling him an interloper, and tells him that if he wants a family then he should make one of his own. Following this, Jules addresses her family. She states that “marriage is hard”, and tearfully admits her errors and begs for forgiveness. The next morning the family, pointedly missing Paul, brings Joni to her new university. While Nic and Jules together hug Joni to say goodbye they also affectionately touch each other. During the ride home, Laser tells his two moms, “you guys shouldn’t break up” because they are both too “old”.

Jules and Nic both giggle at Laser’s comment and the film ends with them smiling emotionally at each other and touching hands.

Right. Back to me now.

First, here’s what worked in the movie: the actors. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I feared that the combination of Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo would a be a terrible harbinger of painful times ahead. Pencil-stabbing-my-leg times ahead. I’ve only ever liked Moore in Magnolia, and Annette and Mark in … well, to be honest, nothing.

Annette: The American President?! Regarding Henry?! Mars Attacks!? Ok – some may say American Beauty may be the exception to the rule, but seriously – what do you remember from this movie? Is it Annette or is it Kevin Spacey smoking reefers in his garage while pumping iron?

I thought so.

And Mark: he was great in …. um.

Having said that, I feel I need to go back a revisit their previous works, because their acting in Kids was very good, both individually and collectively. They  had tough roles – no obvious flaws nor strengths, no champion cause, no obvious villain to overcome . Yet each performance was powerful, and understated. Thoughtful, nuanced and multi-layered. I expected to be underwhelmed by the acting in this movie, and I was most enjoyably wrong. It was a collective coup-de-grace.

The acting in this movie may deserve nods from the Academy, but I can’t find other aspects  that do.

Yes, I’ll admit that a mainstream movie about a same-sex couple and their family is welcome and overdue. But the strength of the story was that it was not about a same-sex couple, but rather a story of a family, dealing with questions of meaning, infidelity, dreams, and hope. Having said that, the story was very, very thin. The problems the parents faced – what was new in that? A mix of a controlling (yet sympathetic) overworked mom, with a dreamer, misunderstood, underachieving … mom.

I ask you to re-imagine the casting of this film, and imagine that Nic (Annette Bening) was replaced by, say, Brad Pitt. Is this story still interesting, still compelling? Do we break new frontiers with this story? I say … no. It is a story that has been told before, and told better. Infidelity, reaching the kids, understanding your dreams? These have been the topic of countless great movies, and can you count Kids among them?

I also struggled to find the classic elements of a good story – a character arc, conflict, resolution. The plot progressed along lightly, but never really took us anywhere. At the end of the day, were any of the characters any different that when the story began?

Bottom line: it was a fine movie. – a good movie even, but as a movie that took me … somewhere new? Muwmmm.

An acting nod for Bening is deserved. Not a performance for the ages, but very, very solid.

And one last thought – I’d heard the movie was a comedy. A comedy? I’m not sure I laughed even once. Fluff-drama, very well acted, thin story.

Update 2011.01.27:

Nods for Bening and Ruffalo are deserved.

Original Screenplay, though? Not even close.

Best Picture? In a field with 10 nominees, perhaps The Kids... deserves a nod. However, this may be more a product of the fact there are 10 nominations required, rather than merit of the film.

Kids Are All Right poster

One Response to The Kids Are All Right

  1. […] review of The Kids Are All Right – the most unfunny comedy of the year! Good performances, weak story. Annette Bening was […]

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