The Kids Are All Right

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko

The Kids Are All Right is a gay movie with gay themes made by a gay director about a long-term lesbian couple with this shocking message: Gay relationships can be just as tiresome as straight relationships, if not more so. If such a revelation floats your boat, The Kids Are All Right is the not particularly funny summer comedy for you.

In one respect, The Kids Are All Right is a fascinating document, because it is entirely devoid of explicit social commentary. There are no speeches about the difficulties of living a gay life; the kids of the title are not forced to defend their two moms against the harsh words of classmates; the characters do not feel or act oppressed.

Now, take away any frisson that comes from watching Julianne Moore and Annette Bening get all sapphic with each other. Then take away the hardee-har-har plot in which the too-cool-for-school anonymous donor whose seed was used to create the “kids” many years earlier becomes a disruptive part of the family. What is left is a pseudo-comic, pseudo-intimate account of the pains of adolescence and the difficulties of marriage that is neither amusing nor particularly insightful. And it’s rather gross, though not for the reasons you might think.

The movie’s cowriter and director, Lisa Cholodenko, previously was responsible for several rather arch independent films, like High Art, about a junkie lesbian photographer, and Laurel Canyon, in which a man’s straightlaced fiancée is so liberated by his mother’s bohemian ways that she ends up making out with the woman. Despite the fact that she (together with Stuart Blumberg) came up with a plot that could have been the next Adam Sandler summer blockbuster, Cholodenko is desperately concerned with maintaining her indie cred. And so she insists on lacing this extremely PC sitcom with bits of business and dialogue designed to discomfit and discombobulate the more mainstream audience she wishes to win over: hideous sexual chatter between teenagers in one scene, the repulsive deployment of electric sexual devices and pornography in another. Do kids talk this way in real life? Sure. Do people use these aids? Evidently. But as Jackie Mason once said, “People have sex. But they also have soup. How come in a movie, no one ever has soup?”

The theme running through Cholodenko’s work is that there is no “normal,” and that efforts to confine people to conventional categories are counterproductive and soul-killing. It’s that whole Walt Whitman “I contain multitudes” affect, and it helps explain her insistence on including the offputting details and dialogue.

Thus, everyone in The Kids Are All Right is torn. Annette Bening may be living an alternative lifestyle, but she is a controlling bourgeois drunk. Julianne Moore is the hippie free spirit of the couple, but she’s also a frustrated housewife. Their 15-year-old son Laser is hungry for the kind of manly physical affection his friend and his friend’s father enjoy, but his friend abuses animals because he is so busy repressing his own homosexual impulses. Their 18-year-old daughter Joni is the ultimate good girl grade-getter, disgusted by the easy sexuality of her buddy and unable to express her own feelings toward a soft and sweet boy. And the donor is embodied by Mark Ruffalo in yet another version of the immensely charming but entirely immature man-boys he always plays.

But all of this self-consciously stark honesty about life’s disappointments fits uncomfortably with the Sandlerian plot line. The general unease is amplified by the performances of the lead actresses. They don’t seem very comfortable in their lesbianism, and seem to be going at their parts with grim determination rather than complete commitment. That’s especially true of Julianne Moore, who has the better and juicier part as the more unfocused and desperate of the two. She seems relieved when the plot has her getting physical with Ruffalo; there isn’t a trace of the awkwardness she has whenever she’s in a clench with Bening. And clench is the mot juste for Bening, whose entire body seems to be rebelling against the part she’s playing.

The Kids Are All Right is the second movie this year, after the brilliant though equally discomfiting Greenberg, that attempts a conscious echo of the loose, grainily photographed, sun-dappled Southern California cinema of the 1970s, as seen in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, among many others. But it’s not the right look for a marital farce, which is what The Kids Are All Right is in part, or for a family drama, which The Kids Are All Right is in part, or for a teen identity picture, which The Kids Are All Right is in part, or for an overgrown slacker study, which The Kids Are All Right is in part. 

All these parts add up to an ungainly and unsteady whole. This is what happens when you try to contain multitudes in a ludicrous receptacle.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.