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Review: “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)

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.

Grade: A

Visually striking “Alice” lacks emotional weight

Helena Bonham Carter steals scenes (and heads) in Tim Burton's eye-popping "Alice in Wonderland."

Back in Underland after a 13-year absence, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself lost and certain she’s the wrong Alice. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is just as certain she’s the right one, but there’s a catch. “You used to be much more … ‘muchier.’ You’ve lost your muchness,” Hatter laments. Alice has lost her groove, poor lass, and he’ll stop at nothing — including the use of frequent accent switches — to help her find it.

This is what Tim Burton’s long-anticipated and fluorescent-hued film amounts to: a 109-minute quest to find Alice’s muchness, the very same muchness a corset-filled life in London has chased away. As a visual experience, “Alice in Wonderland” proves a feast for the eyes, a smörgåsbord of vibrant colors and landscapes, delightful costumes (the Red Queen’s make-up and the mushrooms alone are amazing). Give in to the 3D pull if you must, but this film is meant to be seen the way it was filmed: in 2D. As a movie, though, there’s a lack of emotional depth and character development that make it difficult to connect the “wow” we see with our eyes to any real sense of heartfelt wonderment. And seeing the magic and feeling it — the way we do in, say, “Avatar” — are two very different things.

The saving graces, however, come in the form of the characters, many of which are so vibrant and unforgettable they detract from the film’s shortcomings. (Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat could induce a smattering of night terrors, for example, as could Helena Bonham Carter’s strangely touching Red Queen.) Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes liberties with Lewis Carroll’s tale; some are successful and some are not. “Alice in Wonderland” begins in London, where Alice is set to marry an uppity, blockheaded lord (Tim Pigott-Smith). Underland is no longer in her thoughts, and life has become gray since her father’s (Martin Csokas) death. Now Alice must weather a marriage proposal in front of people she hates wearing no stockings and no corset (she believes in neither). In gallops the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) to lead her down the rabbit hole, where everyone, from Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) to that wise old toker* the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), insists she can’t be the Alice of 13 years past. They waste pages of dialogue arguing about this. They don’t reach a conclusion, not until the Mad Hatter sets them right. She is Alice, she will save them from the Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and the lovely, magnanimous White Queen (Anne Hathaway) will take back her throne.

The lead-up to the Big Battle — a crushing disappointment of a CGI-coated finale where the seams show through — proves to be somewhat tedious and rushed. Writing is a weak point in “Alice in Wonderland,” with Woolverton providing little development on the best characters and Burton spotlighting the weakest ones. The Mad Hatter acts like a narrator/historian, but he’s a mystery to us. Maybe he’s written as an all-over-the-map chap or maybe that’s just how Depp plays him; either way, it doesn’t work. He’s an annoying kook, not a lovable one. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is a rather uninteresting villain who gets loads of screentime, whereas Fry’s ominous Cheshire Cat and Rickman’s droll caterpillar are reduced to a few scenes.

Not everyone fairs so badly. Hathaway’s bright smile and chirpy manner hints that the White Queen isn’t so different from her evil sister, only more restrained. Wasikowska gives Alice some gumption, a kind of uncertain, coltish beauty and spirit that illustrate the painful tug between youth and adulthood. And yet the true, unadulterated star of “Alice in Wonderland” is Burton favorite Helena Bonham Carter, who’s simply smashing as the freakish, self-conscious Red Queen. She is a woman who insulates herself with a throng of mindless nodders, people who don fake noses and bellies and ears to offset the queen’s oversized head. She’s quick to anger and still there’s a softness in her for the outsiders, although her sad, lonely life has taught her that “it is far better to be feared than loved.” She gets at our hearts in ways the film she’s in simply cannot.

Grade: B-

*Don’t kid yourself. He’s a pothead.

Who moved my tart?

Happy “Alice in Wonderland”-in-3D-Opens-in-Theaters-Nationwide Day, Interwebbers!

(My sincerest apologies. When I get this excited about a movie, I’m taken over by ROYG-BIV demons.)

I don’t know if y’all know this, but the only appropriate ways to celebrate this happy day are:

  1. Sing “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” long enough to lift your spirit but not so long that your coworkers call the Men in White Coats to take you away.
  2. Work the phrases “Cheshire Cat grin,” “down the rabbit hole” and “off with her head!” into conversations where they have absolutely no business. Alternately, go to the office fridge at lunchtime (when the masses converge), look inside and demand, in shocked tones, to know: “Who stole the tart?”
  3. Go see the movie. Duh.

Happy viewing!