Reel Life

A shrink looks at men, women, marriage, movies, and more.

Marriage Is Hard: Film Review—The Kids Are All Right

Marginalizing men into sperm donors does not completely detoxify them.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is a new unromantic comedy of manners from Lisa Cholodenko. It has sneaked into town largely unheralded but grandly provocative, turning our romantic notions about sex and sexlessness, about love and hate, males and females, on their asses. KIDS is alternately hilarious, sexy, stimulating, tender and enlightening.

It is less polished than Meryl Streep's recent IT'S COMPLICATED but also more honest and natural. No one is glamorized. I don't think any of the cherishable actors here wear a smidgen of make up. Both films focus on the changes in people and relationships when children leave home and go off to school, or wherever, and leave their parents, still in the prime of life, at loose ends and reluctant to let go.

From the start, the film piques our curiosity. At first glance we seem to be watching a pair or more of octopi wrestling beneath the sheets. This seems be an act of awkward, sweaty love. The couple keep chugging away at the mysterious process of making love atop a pile of irritations, failed expectations and familiar quips, as married people do in the movies, to signal their familiarity and intimacy. The couple (who turn out to be Julianne Moore and Annette Bening ) crawls out of bed and starts insulting one another vertically, as couples do in real life and even more in the movies.

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The facts of this family history are spilled out. They've been together for 20 years, Bening is a doctor, Moore a dimly lit stay-at- home mom with many failed careers. The couple has two teenaged kids; Mia is 18 and Josh is 16. They were both conceived artificially, but that is not talked about much. They consider themselves an ideal family, or as daughter, Mia (ALICE IN WONDERLAND) Wasikowska puts it pointedly, Bening's model of an "ideal lesbian family."

From the get-go, we sense there is something missing in this family. What does this family need? Maybe they need some common sense beneath their conversation full of mental health slogans and platitudes, or looser boundaries, or efforts at honesty that focus on important issues, or less intrusive mothers. Of course, the other possibility is that the family needs a grown man. Or maybe the problem is that someone thinks they need a man, when that would really add to the burdens the family faces. No one in this family would stoop to admitting they are actually missing one of the things they are so proudly doing without. Or maybe the family needs to know their Sperm Donor just to clear up the curiosity about him. Bingo!

The largely silent 16 -year-old son,(Josh Hutcherson), pushes his sister into finding out who their father was. She finds the sperm bank and soon has the name of a donor. She contacts the $60-a pop-sperm donor from which she and her brother both came. Mia is a precocious 18-year-old high school valedictorian who knows everything, knows that she needs to know who she is and where she came from. It has been against the family rules to think or talk about the Family Sperm Donor.

The Sperm Donor enters the family, breaks the rules, and turns this self-consciously ideal family into a tangle of secrets and lies, a preoccupation of neuroses, and an overriding hostility. The Sperm Donor, still rooted in his hippie, counter-culture rebellious sensibility, passes on his prejudices, which are very different from those of the two mothers. Whatever deficiencies this family had before seem minuscule compared with what they turned into a few weeks later. One secret of happiness may be to leave well enough alone and don't try for perfection.

The Sperm Donor is played by Mark Ruffalo, the hairy successor to Alec Baldwin. Ruffalo may actually be the male counterpart of Julianne Moore, an often naked-and-proud-of-it sex symbol who wins accolades for acting in serious indie films like YOU CAN COUNT ON ME or WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANY MORE. Moore and Ruffalo both ignore boundaries.

Bening, as head of this household, just enlarges her milk route as the family population increases. She's been fine with it as long as she could complain about it and drink too much. Bening, (AMERICAN BEAUTY) at this point of her career is muscular and tense. In her strength and hardness she's become more interesting. She's lost her Kewpie doll mouth. She's unadorned, all her muscle flexed, and all her emotions on display.

In a worst case scenario fantasy, a sperm donor actually shows up and tries to take control of the family. So as soon as Ruffalo arrives, he challenges Bening's authority on many levels, and she registers every loss of control and every way in which she stoops to humble herself. As a strict vegetarian she eats the rare, bloody steak Ruffalo has brought to the table. What's more, as she chokes it down, she praises it and takes another drink.

The manifold ways in which Ruffalo brings them all under his control are seemingly so innocent but astoundingly effective. Some of them are simple. He shoots baskets with Josh, lets him win and opens himself up a bit. Josh then encourages Mia to defy her mother by riding Ruffalo's motorcycle. Ruffalo treats Mia as a grownup rather than as a child, but he seems almost on the verge of demanding parental rights for his long delivered sperm donation.

He hires Moore to landscape his back yard. The round-heeled Moore is easy, she brings sex to the table and her need to nurture wherever else she might be. Bening, on the other hand is hard. She's a doctor, wanting her patients to obediently do what they are told, but not collapse pitifully upon her. But once every member of the family has been brought under Ruffalo's sway, everyone's increasingly complex web of lies and deceits blows the family apart, with talk of divorce and of running away from home.

Finally, in a paean to honesty, each family member gets to say his or her peace. Moore's last word is the best: "Marriage is HARD!" Men may be useful, though unnecessary. Merely being there and being a sperm donor is nowhere near enough. A man has to get over his sense of entitlement before he can be useful. There are few real secrets in Bening's family and she can tease them out. Moore and Ruffalo are hairy people and they leave traces behind, wherever they go---even to bed.

Betty Friedan once told me that women are at least a generation ahead of men in recognizing the distorting impact of gender on all of us. It's not a problem, or a defect, just a limiting fact about how we were raised. No solution here is offered to the complexity of marriage between people of any or all genders other than "It's hard." It's hard for all of us. Marriage is not supposed to make us happy, it is supposed to make us married, so we won't have to date and so life will have some predictability. Love meanwhile, is not something people feel, but something people try to express no matter how they feel.

Great movie! Overflowing with wisdom and honesty. Marginalizing men into mere sperm donors does not completely detoxify them. A family can't be perfected, but when you are part of it, it can be understood and appreciated. Its OK if the family you grew up in did not approach normality, you may have to guess at normal and pay closer attention. There is nothing wrong with a marriage like the one you grew up in or a family in which you know what to expect. If you didn't, you have to keep working at it. All families offer similar opportunities for in-vivo studies of family life. Straight or gay, male or female, it's all more the same than otherwise.

What a wise movie, what a sexy movie, what humor. Great experience.

The kids are all right. So are the parents. And there's more than one way to skin a cat. I'll never forget Moore's last word: "Marriage is HARD!"

 

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a psychiatrist/family therapist in Atlanta., author, international lecturer and film critic.

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