The Kids Are All Right: my thoughts

I’m not going to write a thorough review of the movie I just saw tonight at Coolidge Corner: The Kids Are All Right. I’m not going to include a plot summary, though I am going to include many spoilers as I describe, briefly, why I hated it.

The film, to me, comes across as both disturbingly amoral in its blase presentation of fucked up events yet preachy. In other words, director, Lisa Cholodenko is like the worst of all authority figures: absent when situations need a firm, moral perspective, and heavy-handed and doctrinaire when situations require ambiguity and subtlety.

Critics have said that the film is about two “normal” parents and their “wry, wise” teenaged kids. Let’s cut through the bullshit. The kids in this movie, Laser and Joni, are not nice, pleasant people, nor are they particularly insightful. But boy do they quip. Another adult filmmaker’s misbegotten, superficial conception of smart, angsty teens who are way too nonchalant to be real and way too surly to be likable. These kids make Juno seem realistic and lived-in. I suppose we’re supposed to feel a great sense of respect for Laser when he prevents a dog from getting pissed on by his reprehensible friend. And that Joni must be deep and thoughtful because she is always frowning? The film expects way too little of its characters before morally exalting them and presents them as having qualities it is too lazy to show.

Let’s get to the worst part of the film. The absolute worst mind-fuck you can imagine. The plot is basically about the adulterous relationship between Jules (Julianne Moore) and the sperm donor of the kids, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Now, if you’re a free love hippie kinda person, you may respond to this film differently than I did. But holy fucking shit. This woman repeatedly betrays her wife of 20 years and the movie asks us to sympathize more with her than with Nic (Annette Bening) who is presented as a stable, reasonable, loving, albeit flawed woman? Nuh-uh. The sex scenes between Paul and Jules are gratuitous, commenting neither on Jules’ evolving concept of her sexuality nor on the emotional tumult of her betrayal/passion. This is the lack of moral compass I am talking about.

The film reduces serious topics to inexplicable jokes lacking context or insight. Jules’ affair with Paul becomes as fleeting and inexplicable as her desire to pick up smoking cigarettes after a long absence. Jules’ horrendous treatment of an immigrant worker reveals more about Cholodenko’s twisted sense of humor than it does about bourgeois racism.

And what to say of Paul? A character who is intimated to be a vapid womanizer yet also glamorized, and to whose complexities, the film never does justice. Again, to bring up Juno by counterexample, a film that had the courage to expose its central pseudo-fatherly sleaze (Jason Bateman) for what he was after a logical sequence of events. Paul’s conduct around his own daughter as well as her friend is questionable. Nic has every right to be threatened by Paul, but Cholodenko frames her concerns as that of a vengeful bitch. When Nic angrily says to Paul, “I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass,” it is unclear why Cholodenko doesn’t share her outrage at this outsider whose wanton selfishness threatens her family.

Even aside from his predatory sexuality (hiring a married woman for the purpose of fucking her), does the film actually believe Paul’s bullshit? His “hey man, college blows” attitude? The only thing compelling about this character is his egotism and his superficiality, but the film seems to think he’s actually a really cool, smart guy. How he went from a college dropout to a successful restauranteur with a sprawling house in the Hollywood Hills is another convenient, elitist omission from Cholodenko, who views society as a playground for the rich (ex: her disdain at Nic’s workaholism; ex2: the non-discussion over Jules’ purchase of a truck).

And what to say of the bloated, poorly staged and written climax wherein Jules delivers a monologue expressing the film’s themes about the difficulty of marriage and child-rearing? Cliche and un-cathartic, this scene attempts to mend bridges that had actually been destroyed, and make excuses for a character who deserves punishment.

I wish I could commend the film for its technical abilities. It capably delivers laughs and moments of tenderness, yet lacks the insight or the moral compass to make such situations resonant- or frankly palatable. Just about the only thing that’s “all right” about this film is Nic and Annette Bening’s performance.

I would like to finally add that this is a film that just about everyone can and should hate:
-Lesbians for the unresolved “all lesbians need a man” aspect with Jules and Paul + copious amounts of straight sex vs. absolutely no lesbian eroticism
-Straight men for the unceremonious dismissal/vapid, hyper-sexualized portrayal of their proxy, Paul
-Poor people/immigrants for the flagrant elitism throughout and caricaturing of Mexican laborers
-Hard-working, pragmatic rich people for the way Nic is negatively shown as a workaholic
-High school teenagers because the annoying bitch and meathead jock are portrayed as sensitive protagonists

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Kids Are All Right: my thoughts

  1. LN

    There are few things I hate more than emotionally stunted, unsympathetic and self-congratulating films. That said, there are few things I like more than passionate, pissed-off reviews of such films by people I enjoy. Rock on.

  2. John Wulsin

    Ann,

    It’s great following your blog and I really enjoyed this post. I love reading movie/book reviews from friends. And I always love a highly critical review of a popular movie. So I doubly enjoyed this post.

    I agree with a lot of your points, but I think Cholodenko employs more subtlety/ambiguity in her character portrayals than you give her credit for. Yes, Nic is initially portrayed as loveless & workaholic, but by the end of the movie I felt the most sympathy for her. There is a scene towards the end of the movie when Paul shows up at the door and Nic answers the door. He mumbles something like “I’m so sorry. I understand I’ve messed things up.” Nic responds somethine like “No, Paul. You don’t understand. Go make a family, and then tell me you understand.” [Sorry for botching the quotes.]

    To me, that exchange represented the tragedy of Paul’s care-free lifestyle and the strength of Nic’s character. I saw Paul’s “egotism and superficiality” as very much central to the director’s goal of portraying him as unable to engage in deep, healthy relationships. At the end, I felt more sympathy for Nic than any of the other characters.

    I was offended by the immigrant jokes too, but I took those as a representation of Jules’s immaturity and inability to understand the consequences of her actions.

    In the end, I believed in the flaws of each character (I’m ignoring the kids, who I agree with you: they were totally unbelievable and unconvincing). Not one of the main characters is perfect. Not one is all evil. I liked that ambiguity because it rang true to the messiness of love and attraction, which is rarely about good and evil.

    Thanks to your post, I want to re-watch the movie, with a more critical eye. Perhaps I’m giving the director too much credit.

    -J

  3. Dear John,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response. I’m flattered that you read this blog 🙂

    I would like to identify what I think are the fundamental differences in our respective interpretations of the film.

    While Cholodenko presented characters that provoked somewhat similar responses in us (our identification with Nic; our disapproval at Paul) I found the perspective with which she presented these characters problematic. In other words, Cholodenko’s attitude towards any given situation with the characters ran contrary to the sheer, moral facts of what she was presenting. While we both appear to agree about the moral value of the characters, I think we disagree in that I’m not sure the director of the film is on the same page as you or me.

    For example, the scene in which Nic gives Jules a bubble bath, but then takes a call from a patient is clearly intended to justify Jules’ dissatisfaction with Nic. The scene is told from Jules’ perspective and Cholodenko clearly intends for us to identify with Jules (and by extension, take issue with Nic). However, what did that scene depict? A woman attempting to make amends with her wife but becoming temporarily distracted by a work call. Is this situation realistic? Perhaps. But in the context of Jules’ affair, this scene is an enraging attempt by Cholodenko to justify Jules’ betrayal based upon a piddling incident of distracted tenderness.

    This scene was symptomatic of a larger trend throughout the film– wherein Cholodenko would present a scenario with self-evident moral lessons but poison them with an attitude that made them morally unpalatable in the larger context.

    OK- another huge point of disagreement between us, which is related to my previous point, is on the character of Jules. While perhaps technically not evil, she might as well be, for she exhibits almost no redeemable qualities. This woman, observed through the raw observable facts of her dialogue and actions throughout the film (not through the film’s misguided prism that she is a good person) is a spoiled, petulant mess. A woman so selfish that she wakes her children up to comfort herself after they discover her betrayal; who cheats on her wife of 20 years with their children’s sperm donor; who aggressively defends her pursuit of a supposedly valid career but uses that first opportunity to prove her legitimacy as a guise for infidelity; who shows no adeptness at parenting; who is so spoiled and self-centered that she becomes irrationally enraged at her wife who was giving her a bubble bath; who, instead of acting contrite to the family she betrayed, wastes her family’s time by justifying her behavior with platitudes about “how hard” it is to be a parent and a spouse. She is racist, un-serious, lazy, and elitist. I was not convinced by this character at all.

    Cholodenko had two options: give her redeeming qualities or present her as the reprehensible mess she is. She did neither and the movie became the moral mess it could have avoided had it only acknowledged its main character as such.

  4. PS: I should reiterate again, however, how technically accomplished this film is in its subtle details. As far as relationship-based comedies go, it is proficient in nailing the peculiarities and minutiae of how people interact, with frequently hilarious results. In capturing these details, Cholodenko makes the audience viscerally feel the emotions of its characters– such as Nic’s discovery of Jules’ infidelity. A perfect storm of brilliant acting, scripting, sound editing, and directing make the audience perfectly feel Nic’s agony. Cholodenko, the observer, has beautifully presented a heartbreaking situation, then Cholodenko, the moralist, pushes a catharsis in the absolute wrong direction. I think that’s what’s so disheartening — the film is the work of an obviously talented filmmaker who has a jaded, bizarre, and arrogant moral sense.

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