The Kids Are All Right
The California that we get in this film is a greener, gayer update of the California that Woody Allen took such perfect potshots at, more than thirty years ago, in "Annie Hall," the difference being that Cholodenko doesn't always know that it is funny. … [D]o the screenwriters not realize that half of the women's conversation — "We just talked conceptually," "It hasn't risen to the point of consciousness for you," "It's so indigenous!" — is pure, extra-planetary prattling and nothing but?
Anthony Lane, "Wives' Tales," New Yorker July 12 & 19 2010, 92.
Uh, yeah, I think they do realize that, Mr. Lane. If anything, I think The Kids Are All Right's script relies a little too heavily on sending up that post-hippie careful vagueness, Jules's in particular — we all know people like that, but even people like that aren't People Like That every minute.
The movie isn't perfect; it has its on-the-nose moments, and the ending is sweet in its way but also feels like a compromise, like the script wanted to do something more challenging and equivocal and couldn't quite get there. But it should be given credit for knowing its own humor.
Lane goes on to sniff that "[t]he prattle turns chronic when Jules, who fancies herself as a landscape designer, is hired by Paul to reshape his back yard; she suggests 'a trellisy, hidden garden kind of thing,' or, alternatively, 'you could go with the Asiany.' I wouldn't trust her to pick a rose." Right; that's…the point. Or the point is that we would trust her to pick a rose, in the sense of cutting it, but for Jules to pick a rose in the sense of selecting one from the available options? Yes, that would take her 20 minutes to do, and she would accompany it with several watery masters-seminar paragraphs. That's the character. That's all the characters: frustrating, and also warm, passive-aggressive, goofy, controlling, hypocritical, high, and/or lost.
It's a tribute to the construction of Nic and Jules specifically that I felt tenderly towards them when ordinarily I can barely tolerate the actresses playing them. Julianne Moore is a good actress, and my historical attitude towards her (in short: "uch") isn't rational, but I started hating her when she played Dr. Nose E. Bitchface in The Fugitive, and she might have turned it around after that, but after The Myth of Fingerprints, a hateful film in which Moore plays the most hateful in a sizeable group of hateful characters who themselves hate 1) each other, 2) wearing the correct size of sweater, and 3) organic dialogue, I lost hope. She's very pretty and she's very skilled and yet this is the first time in over a decade that I didn't want to slap her every minute she was onscreen.
I don't hate Bening, but she's overpraised for performances that are merely good and sometimes even one-note. The ability is there, but I wonder when we all agreed to behave as though she's one of the great talents of her generation…when she married Beatty, I assume, which is another essay, and when you marry a notorious cocksman, respected artist, and big-time industry player all in one, I don't know that the direction you do or don't receive subsequently is something you can control. That said, I've seldom felt like I've seen what she could really do. American Beauty is a good example; I strongly disliked the movie while respecting several of the performances, hers included, but she could have pushed harder. She's good, but not brave.
Here, Bening is styled and lit in a way that shows every peak and gully in her face; it makes her more beautiful than the porcelain presentation of 15 years ago — and she's finally showing us what she can really do. Maybe it's the part, maybe it's the direction, maybe it's something wholly else that let her cut it loose. Maybe using a face that looks properly lived in gives her permission to put that into the acting. Whatever it is, she's throttled down from movie star to actress, and she's great in TKAAR, contradictory, subtle, real. Moore is great too, and Jules does some hatefully careless things, but I still rooted for her and understood her. The Academy had better remember that hideous, note-perfect scene with the straight couple at the restaurant come nominations time…and Bening singing Joni, which was some of the best acting she's ever done and excruciating to watch.
I laughed at these characters, and with them too; the movie definitely knows the difference and plays each one accordingly, and I kind of don't get how Lane didn't see that. If you think it's a minor picture, fine, just say so; it is, but not for that reason.
Tags: Annette Bening Anthony Lane Joni Mitchell Julianne Moore movies shut up inattentive criticism Warren Beatty