The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right, starring Annette Benning, Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, is your very average family comedy dressed up like a sensitive 21st century drama.  Think of, oh…I don’t know.  How about The Brady Bunch crossed with Weeds:

“Here’s the story of two dykes with babies /
Whose sperm donor/father is a dork /
And porks their mother…”

I didn’t dislike this film, but this isn’t the same as saying that I liked it.  It’s best moments are the primarily the well-written dialog between the two moms (the Momses, as they are referred to by their children) and their teenaged offspring.  But as a film that is practically beating us over the head from the opening credits with the message that people who live “alternative” lifestyles are just as “normal” (read: screwed up) as the rest of us, it’s a simple flop.  There was nothing illuminating about the film, and the characters (with the exception of Moore’s and Benning’s) are flat and two-dimensional, and the two moms do nothing to evolve as people either.

We have the over-achieving, extremely sheltered 18-year-old first-born daughter, who has done “everything you wanted.  I got straight A’s!  I got into every college I applied to!”, and the quiet (and, at least in my opinion, somewhat dim-witted) fifteen-year-old son, an athlete who the “momses” think might be gay (their obvious discomfort with this should be an opportunity for either great comedy or some revealing insight, but fails to deliver anything that good).

There is also Mark Ruffalo, the sperm-donating biological father, a self-centered restaurant owner who is dragged reluctantly into this family and – after one meeting, no less! – is instantly in love with his children and trying to act like a father, right up until he jumps haphazardly into bed with Moore.  (I have to comment on this, by the way, but as attractive as Julianne Moore is, why on earth would anyone run to her and give up on Yaya DeCosta, who may be the most beautiful woman I have ever seen?)

Central to the story, however, are the lesbian couple of Nick and Jules (played by Benning and Moore, respectively); Nick is a physician and Jules is apparently always starting something – in the story arc here it is a landscape design business – but rarely finishing anything.  Benning has been one of my favorites actresses ever since The Grifters (dear God, was that twenty years ago?); she plays the bitch better than anyone since Sigourney Weaver, and she is in full stride in this film.  She’s manipulative and demanding, unflinching in her harpy-ish criticisms (her sanctimonious speeches to her children about writing thank-you notes gave me friggin’ chills), and she is utterly unwilling to listen to anyone else about anything.  Benning in fact is so good in this role that I couldn’t find any redeeming qualities in her character, and I found myself asking why in God’s name anyone would want to spend their life with this woman?

No doubt this is exactly the question Jules – played with a nice twinkle in her eye by Julianne Moore – is asking herself as she plunges (I think “plunges” is the most correct verb here) into a sordid sex-romp (you can’t really call it an affair) with the smitten (and dim-witted) Ruffalo.  Their sex scenes are at once uncomfortable and hysterically funny:  Their first time in bed, Moore’s reaction upon unzipping Ruffalo’s fly is: “Oh!  HELLO THERE!”

And it is on this moment that I hang my real criticism of The Kids Are All Right:  Is that really the reaction a “sad, middle-aged lesbian” (as Jules describes herself) would have upon witnessing, up close and personal, a full-fledged erection?  I’m guessing this isn’t typically the case.  Clearly the director and writer Cholodenko had the same concern, so there is some awkward back-writing early in the film to cover this (possible) bi-sexual angle.  Apparently, Nick and Jules get off on watching gay male porn (it’s never explained why….and yes, they do try to explain).  I can find no reason for this other than to set up the Moore/Ruffalo coupling (and possibly as a device for the momses concern about their son’s alleged homosexuality), and it is both tired and overwrought.

For reasons that took my subconscious several days to enunciate to my walking self, I kept thinking of the show Seinfeld while considering this movie.  This morning it finally occurred to me:  There’s an episode of Seinfeld which deals with homosexuality and uses (over and over again, to good comedic effect) the phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  The point is, of course, that by repeating this phrase, the Seinfeld cast is displaying their discomfort and bigotry in an ever-increasing light.

And so it is here:  The subtitle of The Kids Are All Right could have been “Now with REAL ORGANIC LESBIANS! Come and see how screwed up their kids are!!”

As the movie tells us in its title (but nowhere else), the kids are fine.  The move, not so much.

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