Paul Mazursky’s woolly, tumultuous comedies from the seventies (think Blume in Love and Harry & Tonto) have never been duplicated. The Kids Are All Right comes close. Although the movie shows no real visual flair — HBO could have aired this kind of medium shot pan-and-scan — I don’t see its warmth and generosity in most products of the Sundance lab.
As a lesbian couple who’ve outlasted most marriages, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore have a rumpled, lived-in casualness, from the jokes at each other’s expense to the way they address their kids. When the college-bound daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) does her fifteen-year-old brother (Justin Hutchinson) a favor by contacting Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the ne’er-do-well who donated sperm eighteen years ago, she feels a kinship with him, and why not? Playing one of his patented scamps — a variant on his character in 2000’s You Can Count On Me — Ruffalo finally lets me see what others find so sexy. He’s playing a slightly ridiculous character, the owner of an organic food restaurant whose garden is as unkempt as his hair and flannel shirts (out of which thick bristly chest hair pops through, like Alan Bates’ in An Unmarried Woman), an affable guy who’s actually rather remote and has never had anyone, man or woman, call out his shit. He’s a terrific older brother instead of a dad, projecting concern when rebuked but never taking it seriously. His performance consists of taking lines and turning them into asides and double takes, which has the added benefit of letting the audience fall into his hands like a ripe apple. For years Ruffalo has hung on the peripheries, somewhere between wider recognition and mere upholder of indie film quality; at the risk of sounding like a press agent, his work here should make him a star. What do stars do? They embody F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage from The Rich Boy: begin with a character and you get a type.
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s first movie High Art (1998) is one of my favorites: a lesbian couple, played by Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson, whose heroin-induced stupor is interrupted by an ambitious neighbor (Radha Mitchell) wooing Sheedy back into photography and into bed. Airtight and very serious, High Art isn’t for everyone (the title’s a clue). Built like a crowdpleaser, The Kids Are All Right takes sitcom banality and deepens it. Lowering her voice a couple of octaves, holding a glass of wine as it were a TV remote, slurring acerbic one-liners, Annette Bening has never given a more entertaining, lived-in performance. It helps that she looks fantastic. The gurgling pixie of the early nineties has matured into a rumpled yet self-assured beauty that’ll tell you to go stick a dick up your ass if you say otherwise. For readers who pine for more performances like Judy Davis’ in Husbands and Wives, here’s your answer. As for Julianne Moore, her wan, freckled ditziness adduce a complex, fucked-up woman who, like Ruffalo, has coasted without anybody calling her out. Cholodenko has the most fun skewering her Californian self-absorption (Moore embodies several generations of Joan Didion characters): Moore peppers her conversation with psychobabble like “consciousness” and “vibes” and the occasional SAT word (“fecund”), and wears baggy black Elvis Costello T-shirts as if he were a hippie icon like David Crosby. In a rather courageous move, she also allows herself to look ragged and unshaven in one key scene.
Most of the film’s good scenes involve the kids in some capacity. Conversations dribble on longer than we expect, allowing for the double takes I mentioned above. A running joke involving daughter Joni and her crush on an Indian student gets a satisfyingly unsatisfying resolution. An unpromising joke about Moore and Bening’s gay male porn stash, discovered unwittingly by Hutchinson, is thrown away like a paper ball tossed into a garbage can (the gay male porn videos, by the way, gibe with my experience; the lesbians I know get more excited by two guys fucking than gay guys do). Wasikowska is too clenched for my taste, but Hutchinson lets you into his character scene by scene; he gives one of the more convincing renditions of burgeoning manhood I’ve seen in recent year. He not only shades his teenage sullenness with a pro’s skill, but ably survives the burden of a character named “Laser.”
When It’s Complicated tried to both delineate and satirize its upper middle class milieu, the results were condescending and depressing. The Kids Are All Right has a sandblasted look, like jeans left in the sun too long; the grainy images seem to sweat along with the characters. And when they seem to embarrass themselves, as Ruffalo and Bening almost do when they launch into an improvised duet on Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” the scene goes from embarrassing to brave to triumphant to embarrassment, in perfect accordance with the way in which Cholodenko’s camera captures each character’s dazed responses. It’s a marvelous movie.