There are plenty of films about marriage, but the characters in them never quite seem to grasp what “lifetime commitment” means. Jules (Julianne Moore) does. She gives a speech late in “The Kids Are All Right” that doesn’t feel the least bit calculated. It has the profane sting of actual truth. “Marriage is hard … just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing. It’s a fucking marathon, okay?” Jules tells her kids, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska). “So sometimes, you know, you’re together for so long, that you just … you stop seeing the other person.” While Jules’ wife Nic (Annette Bening) listens silently, her eyes reflect understanding. She’s been in that muck and tracked it on the rug. This is just the first time anyone’s been brave enough to point out the footprints.
Frank speeches like these are rare in films involving married couples — because who wants to acknowledge the reality that “for better or for worse” actually means “for better or for worse”? Now there’s a dreadful thought to any fan of traditional romantic comedies. Director Lisa Cholodenko is not one such fan. She tackles the subjects of marriage, commitment and family head-on, peppering in enough humor in the script that “The Kids Are All Right” is far from depressing. Cholodenko presents the film as an earnest, funny portrait of modern marriage. Jules and Nic have been together for more than a decade, raising their daughter and son. Nic is a doctor with a sharply critical eye that finds fault even in the gay male porno she uses to get turned on. Jules, though, is more of a wanderer who hasn’t yet stumbled into a profitable career. This is a scab Jules has spent her entire marriage picking. Each mom gave birth to one of the kids using the same anonymous sperm donor. Laser, curious about the man’s identity, convinces Joni, who’s 18, to call the sperm bank. Into their uneventful family life saunters Paul (who else but Mark Ruffalo?), an almost catatonically mellow restauraunt owner. He charms the kids, even hires Jules to landscape his yard, but Nic’s good graces aren’t for sale. She resents his presence even when she pretends she doesn’t. She might register on an uneasy level that Paul and Jules have a lot in common. She’s shocked and not shocked when she finds proof Paul and Jules are sleeping together.
Because “The Kids Are All Right” is not a film of bloated speeches, even the damage caused by this affair is underplayed. Nic’s epiphany happens at a meal at Paul’s house in a dinner scene nearly as wrenching as Anamaria Marinca’s in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Nic, who’s made a show of wanting to welcome Paul into their lives, yammers on incessantly, manifesting interest and politeness at every turn. She even croons most of a Joni Mitchell song while Laser and Joni look on, bewildered. Moore’s growing discomfort at her partner’s behavior is spot on. But the entire scene is Bening’s showcase, and she handles the pressure so marvelously it’s not hard to see that Best Actress Oscar in her hands. The range of emotions she covers is stunning, and she does it all without a sound. She retreats deep inside herself in that way humans do when faced with a crushing and unfaceable truth. What pain is there is too great to absorb in front of company, her children, so it floats around her in a haze. She can’t let it settle on her skin yet. It’s a magnificent combination of strong direction and acting that likely will win Bening that Best Actress Oscar.
Moore provides Bening some competition with Jules, who has a little-girl-lost quality to her. Moore is at her best playing wounded, rudderless women. Jules loves her wife and her kids, but her feelings of failure as a provider cloud her judgment. She projects them onto Nic, interpreting her comments as digs. Jules’ lack of identity leads her to make idiotic, rash choices and hurt the people she loves. This is what makes us human, and Cholodenko’s treatment of it is what makes “The Kids Are All Right” one of the best films of 2010.