A huge disappointment, and 2010´s most overrated film: Lisa Cholodenko´s The Kids Are All Right is light sitcom-level entertainment, tame and dull and even, perhaps, unwittingly offensive in design. But hey, don´t take my word for it: the film has a remarkable 94% on the Tomatometer and seems assured of Oscar noms for Best Picture, Screenplay, Actress (Annette Bening), Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and maybe more.
I certainly wasn´t expecting this from Cholodenko, director of the near-great lesbian-themed High Art, but here it is: “safe” lesbotainment that panders to a straight male crowd, where the lesbian sex is played – under the sheets – purely for laughs and the women can instantly be conquered – explicitly and erotically – by the mighty cock.
The point of it all: a non-traditional family unit – here, a lesbian couple (played by Bening and Julianne Moore) and their two children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) – can face the same problems faced by more traditional families: puberty, college, infidelity, alcoholism, etc. Well, sure, point taken. But none of these problems are explored to any degree of satisfaction, they´re only presented to serve the theme, and the results are downright bland.
A subplot, however, is at least initially satisfying: the kids decide to search for their biological father (the same sperm donor fathered each by different mother, three years apart), and find organic farmer and restaurateur Paul (Ruffalo). Laser (Hutcherson) is disappointed – his biological father seems more liberal and less “manly” than mom Nic (Bening) – but Joni (Wasikowska) takes a shine to him. And Paul, following a string of unsubstantial relationships, soon becomes enamored with his new family; not just the two kids, but also their mothers.
But by the third act, Paul and his moderately engrossing storyline are unceremoniously thrown aside. And as the film´s most interesting element (and its best performance, in the always-solid Ruffalo) fades away, the film hammers home it´s ultra-important, but ever-so-mundane gay marriage message (while it might have some value for Red State America, the majority of the film´s indie-friendly audience should be past this). Yes Dorothy, lesbians are just like you and me.
And by you and me, I mean, of course, rigidly conformist male/female husband and wife caricatures. Bening´s Nic is the workaholic, acerbic, uncaring, alcoholic alpha male, the kind of stereotypical husband that went out of style in the 60s. Nic is downright repellent, and shamefully never taken to task by the script, and a miscast Bening is seldom more than one-note. Of course, a multitude of awards await her. Moore fares better as similarly stereotypical Jules, a delicate, quiet, easily-seduced female who gave up her career in order to raise the children.
The kids are all right, too: Wasikowska (coming off a radiant performance in Burton´s Alice in Wonderland) and Hutcherson (Journey to the Center of the Earth) are frequently more interesting to watch than their adult counterparts.
At best, The Kids Are All Right passes as light entertainment. At worst, it´s a gross oversimplification of a topic that deserves better, and a real disservice to a traditionally mistreated segment of its audience by a filmmaker who should know better.
In the opening moments of Icelandic filmmaker Dagur Kári´s New York City-set The Good Heart, angry old bartender Jacques (Brian Cox) literally gives himself a heart attack (his fifth) after becoming frustrated with a self relaxation audio tape. At the hospital, he meets young, homeless suicide patient Lucas (Paul Dano), a Christ-like figure so overjoyed with his treatment by hospital staff that he offers to donate his organs, all of ‘em, on the spot, in lieu of financial payment.
Subtle it ain´t. In fact, The Good Heart is about as unsubtle as (bad) silent melodrama, and within minutes it reaches an undesirable trifecta: we know exactly where this is going, we cannot fathom the convoluted tracks it has to follow to reach that point, and we really don´t want it to get there. Obvious, unlikely, and highly unsatisfying.
Too bad, because this is a nicely-produced, Jarmusch/Kaurismaki-like little indie, quirky and atmospheric, populated by interesting faces and performances. It´s just the story – it hangs like a weight around the neck of the film, and drags everything down along the way.
So Jacques adopts the young man, teaches him his derisive world-weary ways and trains in the arts of tending bar and making coffee. And wouldja believe Lucas teaches Jacques a thing or two along the way? The bar scenes are the best thing here, with the patrons – seen in quick snippets – always amusing even if they´re walking clichés: the ladies´ man, the one unlucky in love, the drunken, struggling writer, the silent guy. Jacques´ expressive German Shepherd is one of the main characters, too, though he completely disappears, without explanation, for the final act.
Towards the middle of the film, a pretty young woman dressed as a stewardess (French actress Isild Le Besco) wanders into the bar during a rainstorm, sobbing uncontrollably. The bar is closed, but Lucas can´t turn her away, and even obliges her request of a glass of champagne. “I was a flight attendant,” she tells him, “but I got fired ” There´s a long, dramatic pause before she delivers the punchline everyone knows is coming but no one wants to hear: “ because I was afraid of flying.” That sums up The Good Heart pretty nicely.
If there´s a reason to see the film, it´s Cox´s performance as the nasty ol´ S.O.B.: he´s highly entertaining, spouting an almost nonstop stream of vitriol whenever onscreen (even when he´s not saying it, you just know he´s thinking it.) Dano, on the other hand, is given next to nothing to do with his underwritten character, and does nothing with it. The duo are reunited here almost a decade after Cox was the pedophile and Dano the object of his affection in Michael Cuesta´s powerful L.I.E.; their relationship here invites unintended comparison for anyone who has seen the earlier film.
Kári previously directed the popular and award-winning Noi the Albino, a film that showcased, at the very least, a filmmaker in control of his material. The same cannot be said here. An early scene in The Good Heart features a young kitten hung by its neck in the alley; there´s no explanation as to who did it, or why, or what effect that has on Lucas – nor any connection to the plot whatsoever. Kári knows this image has power, but he doesn´t seem to understand that power, or how to use it – he just throws it at us to get a quick reaction. It´s irresponsible, almost oblivious filmmaking, unfortunately representative of the film as a whole.