Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Matrimonial Muddle: The Kids Are All Right

Perhaps I’m being politically incorrect, but The Kids Are All Right is not so all right with me when it comes to selecting an enemy. The otherwise lovely new Lisa Cholodenko feature, beloved by forward-thinking audiences across America, zeros in on a suburban Los Angeles married couple with two children. The partners happen to be middle-aged lesbians, each of whom gave birth to a baby conceived with sperm from the same anonymous donor. The youngsters are now teens who decide to find their biological father. His sudden presence in their lives leads to a crisis.

Great premise. Terrific actors: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the moms, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the offspring, Mark Ruffalo as the unsuspecting third parent. Disappointing resolution.

The narrative initially reels a viewer in with a combination of humor -- especially the embarrassment adolescents invariably feel about adult behavior -- and a hint of simmering emotions.

Nic (Bening) is a physician and a control freak, which leaves the confused, career-free Jules (Moore) with resentment she keeps hidden beneath a slightly ditzy flowerchild surface. Her dream of becoming a landscape designer is ridiculed because her previous business ventures have been failures. Their daughter Joni, now 18, will soon be heading off to college. Her 15-year-old half-brother, Laser, is succumbing to the influence of a friend who likes drugs, danger and cruelty. The freshly-minted dad, Paul (Ruffalo), owns an earthy organic restaurant, for which this veteran of fertilization grows vegetables at a co-op garden. He’s something of a playboy, though hardly a cad or misogynist. His easy-going charm wins over everyone but Nic; she is immediately threatened by the way Joni, Laser and Jules take to the affable guy. Her worry, expressed to him at one point, is that he’s out to steal her family.

This is not Paul’s intention, even though he begins to question the value of remaining single and unencumbered by little ones. He’s not really even a true home-wrecker when a mutual attraction with Jules, hired to tame his uncultivated backyard (and symbolically his untamed heart), results in several energetic liaisons dangereuses. The first of these, played for laughs, has her reacting with amazement at the first sight of his penis, a comic reference to the well-endowed gay male porn she and Nic watch as a turn-on during their own lovemaking sessions.

SPOILER ALERT: Yet Jules’ heterosexual romp essentially is explained away as just another fantasy extension of that girl-on-girl preference rather than what has been evident on screen: a genuine attachment between a man and a woman who seem to have a lot in common. When Nic learns of the affair, their happy home is disrupted but it’s Paul who’s destined to pay the ultimate price -- exile, just as he’s beginning to grow up and yearn for commitment.

Cholodenko is the auteur behind the lesbian-themed High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon, the underrated 2002 tale of louche people in the L.A. music industry. She also has directed episodes of  Homicide: Life on the Street, Six Feet Under, The L Word and, more recently, a segment of HBO’s Hung titled “Beaverland.” Coauthored with Stuart Blumberg, her script for The Kids Are All Right looks at marriage equality as a norm, replete with warts-and-all domestic scenarios similar to those in conventional households. This message may be aimed at Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that overturned the legalization of same-sex wedlock in California two years ago. The forces of homophobia, which were funded by the Church of Latter Day Saints, won that round. But their hate-filled victory was tossed out on August 4 in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, a case before a U.S. District Court in the state. One of Hollywood's most macho stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger, found that in his position as governor he was forced to be the figurehead for a regressive law with which he personally disagrees.

None of the characters in Cholodenko’s movie ever questions the Nic-and-Jules union, however. The issue isn’t even the quaint notion of wedded bliss in general. That conundrum is swept aside with a few typical remarks about the difficulty of sustained togetherness for any gender. Here’s the rub: While pain is inevitable no matter who does the cheating, only the male part of the equation in this instance winds up unforgiven. Jules is pardoned after several mea culpas; Paul’s apologies are rebuffed. Early on, he explains that his two-decade-old contribution to the artificial insemination process was as much about helping others as it was a scheme for some quick cash. He’s a kind, gentle soul, immediately protective of his newfound son and daughter, and the indiscretion clearly took a proverbial two to tango. So why should he be banished from their midst, reduced to the role of almost a pathetic stalker at the end, as everyone else goes on to redemption?

GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning) tries to be an inclusive movement; Jules did not commit a crime by questioning her relationship. Maybe Cholodenko’s queer-as-folk film needs a sequel. All we are saying is give Paul a chance.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of  Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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