Annette Bening & Julianne Moore star in a market-tested sitcom
By Armond White
The Kids Are All Right seems market-tested, like the pilot episode of a TV series. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Jules and Nic, a lesbian couple in Los Angeles. One’s a doctor, the other’s an artist, each has given birth and their teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), now seek out their common father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who has never been involved in their lives. He was a sperm-donor during his wild ’80s youth (“It was more fun than giving blood”). Cue laff-track, applause sign and awards.
Director Lisa Cholodenko, who specializes in randy LGBT melodramas (High Art, Laurel Canyon) takes the PC-storybook flashpoint Heather Has Two Mommies and turns it into a sitcom, primed to flatter mainstream sensibility. Most critics will love its Sundance formula because it flatters their sense of being liberal and progressive by making controversial issues comfortable. Not even Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side had this kind of built-in political correctness approval because its heroine was a white Southern Republican. Jules and Nic, on the other hand, embody Manhattanite political values. There’s no homophobia in Cholodenko’s landscape, which exposes the utterly conventional plot: It is indeed
a storybook-premise, presenting tolerance and wholesome sexuality with an officially feminist slant.
Jules and Nic’s foreplay begins with them watching “gay man porn” as Laser calls it—a cute bit of deviance that lets them articulate a grad school exegesis of Colt Studios product and its uses. When Paul drags his pheromones into the patchouli household, he’s a pint-sized embodiment of Colt’s hairy, leather, motorcycle fetishism. Paul’s masculinity is odorously ripe and so earthy he eats raw garden produce. He’s a lesbian’s ideal of “man,” the better to be excluded from the hearth—which is where Cholodenko’s Sundance humanism falls apart. Her ostracism of Paul conveniently avoids a moment of potential male-Stella Dallas pathos which might have given this movie some emotional power like Rodrigo García’s Mother and Child. (Bening’s agitated presence constantly evokes that way superior film.)
No doubt the reason for Paul’s segregation is to illustrate the self-sufficiency of the lesbian home. Cholodenko’s films always falter through their obvious, self-congratulatory point-making. Jules and Nic make a perfectly PC couple. Their gropings and needlings are sitcom funny (“I love you, Chicken;” “I love you, Pony”), yet not satirical-funny like the lesbian couple featured in Q. Allan Brocka’s wonderful animated TV series Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World (especially the “Labor Pains” sperm-donor episode). But Cholodenko’s live-action lesbians have eccentricities designed to make them endearing—“just like us”—in that privileged sense always reserved for empowered white middle-class characters. Jules and Nic might as well be heterosexual, so unexcitingly “normal” are their work
lives, partnership negotiations and parental maneuvers.
Cholodenko’s political correctness even ignores the casualties of unorthodox home lives: Jules and Nic personify the state of domesticity outside marriage but none of the drawbacks (while their kids suffer only temporarily). They’re role models for sexual freedom and feminist triumph; that they are transparently so is what makes the movie slick and thin. The script by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg is too declarative, spelling out sensitivity as when Jules and Paul bond over Joni Mitchell songs then act-out their consequences; that’s the influence of TV blatancy on contemporary Hollywood characterizations. This is particularly damaging when Nic apologizes before her family: Cholodenko hauls out easy remorse and healing is immediate, with no weight of anticipation or fear in Nic’s contrition. A real work of emotional art would offer quirks of personality that disturb a smooth surface—like the father’s unforgettable gripe in Resnais’ Wild Grass: “My son decided not to have children. I understand that. To reproduce what?”
The Kids Are All Right has no such honest, enlightened ambivalence. It avoids a profound confrontation with the impulse to procreate even as it pretends to refresh and celebrate notions of family life. Cholodenko’s glib feminism doesn’t go as deeply into the pull of genetic and social identity as Wild Grass, Brocka’s Boy Culture, The Runaways, Chaos Theory or Easier With Practice. Those sexually bold films are not PC-propaganda, but they’re morally and aesthetically refined while The Kids Are All Right will receive disproportionate adulation simply because it’s TV-obvious—like its butch-jeans aesthetics.
The Kids Are All Right
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Runtime: 104 min.