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