The Kids Are All Right is too uproariously funny to be a drama, and too earnest in its presentation of humanity to be a comedy. The closest comparison in recent memory is Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, a fine film no doubt, but one that never fully embraced its touchy-feely side. Why are serious writers and filmmakers so afraid of (or uninterested in) genuine positive emotion? Why are the sharpest comedies bitter and cynical satires? What does the say about our culture?
Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are married parents of two teenagers, a nuclear family of the well-to-do liberal California sort. (If all film characters inhabeted the same universe, Nic and Jules would be friends with Meryl Streep's Jane Adler from It's Complicated.) While things are far from perfect -- Nic, an overstressed doctor, enjoys red wine too much, while Jules struggles to launch a new career (her third) in landscape design (don't you dare call it gardening) -- the two have an enviable, well-lived-in relationship. Joni (Mia Wasikowska), their eldest child and an overachiever who has just turned 18, is preparing to leave for college. Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who is aptly described as a "sensitive jock" and has the sole Y chromosome in the household, longs for an adult male presence in his life. The family's world becomes upturned when he convinces his sister to seek out and contact their anonymous donor father.
Enter Mark Ruffalo, whose Paul is the archetype of cool masculine worldliness. Not only does he own a hip, earthy restaurant that would make Alice Waters swoon (he grows his own organic vegetables), he wears a leather jacket, rides a motorcycle, and exudes sex. (Mark Ruffalo can't help that.) Paul is unhappy with his status as a listless Lothario. Once he meets his biological children, in a wonderfully awkward scene, he finds himself pulled into their lives as a new member of the family. The Kids Are All Right centers on how Paul uniquely disrupts and alters each family member's life, for better or worse.
Where a lesser director would veer into melodrama, farce, or (worst of all) polemic, Chodolenko subtly explores these tensions. She almost completely bypasses the fact that Nic and Jules are a married lesbian couple in what I assume is a post-Proposition 8 California. When the subject of their sexuality is explicitly addressed, it's in passing, tossed off like a fact of life unworthy of emphasis. In that sense, The Kids Are All Right is the next logical step from Brokeback Mountain, a film that couldn't escape its capsule definition as the "gay cowboy movie." The universality of The Kids Are All Right (we never even learn the character's last names) is what makes it the best gay movie since Far From Heaven (which also starred Julianne Moore). This is the story of a family, one that just so happens to have two women its head.
I regard Julianne Moore as an angel who walks on Earth, an actress of such radiance and ability that I would happily watch her perform as Tree #2 in a high school performance of Our Town, but The Kids Are All Right is Annette Bening's movie. Her Nic, the breadwinner and guardian of the family, whose facial expressions somehow communicate more than her impeccably written words, is the film's emotional center of gravity. In the film's best scene, Bening sings Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" acapella at the dinner table. That moment -- so funny, so ironic, so poignant -- will play next year, on the night she wins her first Academy Award. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect, especially Ruffalo, who plays Paul as a lovable and sympathetic fuck-up.
While watching The Kids Are All Right, I was reminded of Alexander Payne's Sideways, a (somewhat nasty) satire of the epicurean and boozy proclivities of the West Coast Liberal. Lisa Chodolenko is kinder, but a gently pointed satire underlies her film, though never at her characters' expense. Nic's tirade against composting and heirloom tomatoes is a riotous high point. (“If I hear another person talk about how much they love heirloom tomatoes, I am going to kill myself.”)
Before exiting the theater, while the credits still rolled, I half-jokingly asked my friend if he wanted to stay and watch the movie again. Not because I felt like I missed something, or because I thought a repeat viewing would reveal new depths, though both may be the case. Like a codependent, I didn't want to leave these characters behind, all of whom I'd come to love. And now, even as I write this, I feel like an addict: I can only think of my next fix, the next time I see The Kids Are All Right.