Because it succeeds (and fails) as a family drama instead of as a public service announcement about the competence of gay parents, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, like Brokeback Mountain, is some kind of cultural triumph. However, as anyone who's seen Brokeback Mountain (or, further back, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) knows, cultural triumphs are not necessarily cinematic triumphs. It's altogether unsurprising, then, that the film is a largely retrograde affair reliant on thin, conventional characters and hollow, self-congratulatory laughs.
The film is about the tensions that arise when Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a pair of middle-aged parents, meet Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the sperm donor who provided the genetic material for their two teenage kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson). Early on, the film is unusually frank about some unflattering marital habits, like the sometimes-dutiful sex that's as much about comfort and routine as it is about pleasure and the way in which married people reinforce their bond by criticizing outsiders and interlopers. When it becomes obvious that Paul is actually interested in hanging around the family he inadvertently helped create, though, these trenchant character observations recede into the background as standard conflicts about marriage, parenting, and maturity emerge.
The Kids Are All Right completes an accidental trilogy of recent independent, insular films about marginalized California lifestyles: Noah Baumbach's Greenberg and Jay and Mark Duplass' Cyrus. But a film like Nicole Holofcener's New York-set Please Give embarrasses those movies because it is keenly aware of the ways class privilege complicates human drama. In contrast, the social-status markers in The Kids Are All Right function as ID badges that delineate the characters but don't deepen them. Jules is the soulful one (Elvis Costello T-shirts, belief that "sometimes desire can be counterintuitive," hippie-dippy parenting style), Nic is the uptight one (authoritarian eyewear, omnipresent cell phone, wine as her drug of choice), Paul is the rebel (organic restaurant, motorcycle, multicultural sexual partners), and Nic and Jules' two kids are well-adjusted and nondescript (soccer, Scrabble, Vampire Weekend posters).
Where do these privileged cutouts of the bourgeoisie fight their battles? At the dinner table, of course, preferably one laden with exquisite red wine, properly cooked steaks, and locally sourced produce. It's a mildly amusing bit of cultural criticism that the angriest, most passionate speech in the movie is about composting and organic desserts, but it's telling that the potential laughs to be mined from that earnest lifestyle of careful, ethical consumption are not supposed to be as funny as Jules' comic awkwardness when she stumbles through a vaguely racist dismissal of her Latino gardening assistant. Plus, there isn't a single dinner here to match the discomfort or social challenges presented in 2008's Rachel Getting Married or 2005's underrated The Family Stone, which had the nerve to use gay icon Sarah Jessica Parker to question the limits of liberal tolerance.
Opening Friday, July 30th
Studio on the Squar