July 13, 2010

The limited-release comedy The Kids Are All Right has driven critics into paroxysms of praise. For instance, the normally low-key A.O. Scott enthused in the New York Times as follows: “€œsuperlative,”€ “€œoutrageously funny,”€ “€œheartbreaking,”€ “€œcanny,”€ “€œagile,”€ “€œthrilling,”€ “€œvertiginous,”€ “€œanarchic energy,”€ “€œnovelistic sensitivity,”€ “€œclose to perfect,”€ “€œprecisely measured,”€ “€œhonestly presented,”€ “€œgreat,”€ and “€œextraordinary.”€

Is this low-budget comedy truly the second coming of Lawrence of Arabia? If not, why does Scott appear to be plundering adjectives willy-nilly from Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers”€™ well-thumbed thesaurus of newspaper ad-friendly verbiage?

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as middle-aged lesbians whose domestic routines are flummoxed when Bening’s 18-year-old daughter and Moore’s 15-year-old son, who are half-siblings, contact their anonymous sperm donor father, played by Mark Ruffalo.

This film by television director Lisa Cholodenko (The L Word) may have been partly inspired by two stories notorious on the Hollywood lesbian gossip circuit: the vastly publicized Ellen DeGeneres-Anne Heche affair of the late 1990s and the quieter rumors about the conception of the two children of Oscar-winner Jodie Foster.

The deeply feminine Bening, who is best known for finally getting Warren Beatty to put a ring on it, strives manfully to master the role of the short-haired paterfamilias, the gynecologist breadwinner of the household. Bening, though, ends up sounding passive-aggressively peeved.

The red-haired Moore, who has four Oscar nominations, plays a vague, Annie Hall-like fading beauty, the de facto housewife of the supposedly liberated pair.

Casting as lesbians the girly Bening and Moore, who have four marriages, six children, and seven Oscar nominations between them, continues an old Hollywood tradition going back to the first gay domestic drama, 1969’s Staircase, which featured ladykillers Richard Burton and Rex Harrison (eleven marriages total).

“Unfortunately, the screenwriters appear so self-satisfied by their courage in making minute deviations from the lesbian party line that that they feel no need to develop ideas.”

The more formidable (and never married) Jodie Foster, who is said to have conceived two children by sperm donation, would have been better at being butch than Bening. Yet, Foster also would have been unlikely to accept the role.

Ruffalo’s character somehow exists in a mellow seventies bubble. He’s the laidback chef and owner of a happening Silver Lake restaurant, lives in a hilltop house with a 360-degree view of Los Angeles, owns an organic farm, and sleeps with his waitresses, including a gorgeous black girl with an immense Pam Grier Afro whom he calls “€œFoxy.”€ He seems wholly oblivious to the post-1970s question that hangs gloomily over the heads of most other Los Angelenos, fictional and real: “€œHow can he afford that?”€

When gold-chained Ruffalo roars up on his Harley to hang out with his biological kids, Bening’s character is distressed to notice that the father of her child isn”€™t the scholar she”€™d expected from the paperwork he”€™d filled out at the sperm bank 19 years ago. (The Fleet Street press, which is less muzzled by the strictures of access journalism than the American media, asserted that Foster searched for months before deciding upon a tall, handsome scientist with a 160 IQ.)

Meanwhile, Ruffalo’s arrival has Moore’s character rethinking this whole lesbian business. She comes to feel that, outside of the fantasies of teenage boys, lesbianism is basically Diet Sex. She is soon doing the real thing with the father of her son. In turn, he gets to wondering if it’s not time to settle down. After all, his son could use a dad.

The film’s premise is promising, and it builds momentum whenever the male characters are on screen. Moreover, if you pay close attention, you”€™ll notice tiny hints of satire about the realities of lesbian life. For example, even lesbians find each other kind of dull; lesbians reproduce eugenically; and rich lesbians try to use their money to win more feminine but flighty girlfriends, who often betray them by going back to men. Recall how the politically promoted DeGeneres-Heche relationship turned to fiasco when the pretty but erratic blonde dumped the comedienne in sensible shoes to marry their cameraman.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters appear so self-satisfied by their courage in making minute deviations from the lesbian party line that that they feel no need to develop ideas. Soon, they”€™re fleeing back to the kind of cheerleading that is a staple at the annual LGBT “€œReel Affirmations”€ film festival. The title and tone are reminiscent of the recent “€œstudy”€ announcing that lesbians raise children better than heterosexuals do (according to the lesbians, not according to the kids). It ends predictably with an affirming group hug that was sappy on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Worse is The Kids Are All Right‘s sit-commy lack of skill. The screenplay doesn’t rise to middlebrow and the direction is TV hack-level. If gay marriage weren’t a sacred cause these days—or if this movie were about a heterosexual couple—poor Mr. Scott and the other critics wouldn’t feel obligated to make fools of themselves in the name of Culture War solidarity.


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