Thursday, July 15, 2010

Somewhere the Fox is Crying

Imagine that you agree to go out on a blind date. You meet up with the person, and you hit it off with them really well. You go to a great restaurant, and the food is good, and the conversation is sparkling, and you have so much in common, and you're off to a great start. Your energy is up, so you both go out to a club, and the drinks are tasty and you've got chemistry on the dance floor, and you're looking at each other and you're really feeling that attraction and you just want it to keep going. So you end up at their place, and your endorphins are pumping, and they go to the bathroom while you start getting undressed, and you can't hold your excitement any further so you open the door on them...and they're on the floor shooting heroin.

No matter how much fun you were having, how well you were connecting, the bloom is immediately off the rose, and your memories of that night are going to be tainted.

That is what it's like to see a 2/3 great movie that is slaughtered by a terrible ending. TRUE BELIEVER, WEDDING CRASHERS, SHOWGIRLS...I'm sure you have a few movie dates of your own that took an irreparable wrong turn. And that is, sadly, why I cannot in good conscience recommend Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. It was one of my eagerly-anticipated movies of the summer, and is now my biggest disappointment of the summer.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT starts off as an extremely engaging and pleasant story that blends the traditional dramatics about teenage children becoming adults with fresh reinvention about what constitutes a modern family. In this case, it is Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is making the leap to womanhood with her impending move to college, and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) trying to figure out who he is. They are children of a decade-plus strong lesbian couple, Joni birthed from Nic (Annette Bening), Laser from Jules (Julianne Moore), both sharing the same sperm donor. And it is the identity of that person that underage Laser begs the initially hesitant (but legally adult) Joni to request to have revealed, and to keep secret from their doting but somewhat overbearing mothers. Nic and Jules, meanwhile, are themselves a generally happy couple content with the status quo, but do have some issues to deal with, not only with the impending departure of their firstborn from the nest, but with longstanding personality clashes that are often ignored but never forgotten in a long-term relationship: Nic is a workaholic doctor with a controlling streak and tends to always drink one glass of wine too many, while Jules feels starved for attention, yearns to have a business of her own and not be "kept," and wonders if she is still attractive to Nic or just an item of familiar comfort.

Joni and Laser discover their donor father is an affable (though sometimes cocky) restauranteur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who, in scenes depicting his life before the revelation, we learn operates a small farm to supply his restaurant, and is quite handy with the younger women who work for him. Upon meeting them, Paul is rather happy to learn that part of his biology has helped create two nice, hard-working kids. Laser is not quite as enamored with learning about his dad as he'd thought, but Joni grows fond of him and his self-sustained lifestyle, and Paul proceeds to make himself available to them with enthusiasm. Eventually, the mothers find out that the kids have made contact, and reluctantly agree to have him over for dinner.

The majority of THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is terrific, depicting five smart, intelligent, good-hearted people just trying to muddle through life and each other. When there are scenes of tension, such as Nic's often steely resistance to liking Paul's company and influence, they don't come across as cheap drama but as natural push and pull, especially in the midst of what the primary story is supposed to be, the push and pull between child and parent as the former becomes their own person with their own values and beliefs. Cholodenko does a great job showing the adults warts and all, how Nic's impulses can be both protective and smothering, how Jules can be both ambitious and flighty, how Paul can be both smug and insightful. And the movie also suggests that while both mothers have clearly done a fine job raising their kids, it doesn't hurt to have a father figure in the picture; Laser has a bullying friend whom his moms repeatedly try to counsel him about, but it isn't until after Paul notices his boorish behavior as well that Laser decides to split with him (though of course beforehand he criticizes Paul for making a judgment after one meeting), while Joni has resisted trying to become romantic with a platonic male friend, perhaps wanting the similar comfort of the familiar that her moms have, but considers taking things up a step by observing the take-the-risk behavior of Paul.

And then THIS happened (of course there are spoilers)...

Paul, trying to help Jules with her nascent gardening business, hires her to start with his own back yard, and Jules grows to enjoy the fact that Paul takes her ideas seriously where Nic tended to be dismissive, and more importantly, that he offers her the positivity and compliments that she feels she has been missing from Nic. While it is supposed to be a surprise turn in the story, anyone who has seen the trailer knows that after this meeting of the minds, Jules and Paul end up having a sexual affair. Though Paul is set up as the hound dog of the movie, it is Jules who makes the first move on Paul, and when they attempt to stop after one encounter, it is her who starts it up again. Paul in turn has no interest in the stereotype of "turning" a lesbian straight, he reciprocates because he genuinely likes her, and perhaps because no matter how unorthodox the circumstance, they are the parents of a child they both adore. Paul goes on to break up with the younger woman he's had a "benefits" arrangement with because he is thinking seriously about being with a woman his own age and becoming a non-absentee father to his children.

Naturally, their affair is revealed, and for the sake of drama, it is revealed to all the characters through confrontation and eavesdropping. And naturally, I expected there would be the requisite depictions of shunning and bitterness among the characters, and some sort of showdown between Nic and Paul over the infidelity. And most of that is handled even-handedly: for example, we see frostiness between Nic and Jules as Jules takes residency on the sofa, but in a later scene when Joni comes home drunk and sasses Nic, Jules steps up and scolds Joni for disrespecting her mother. Thus it seemed plausible that Paul would get a similar moment of defensive respect as well.

On the eve of Joni's departure for college, Paul comes to the house to apologize to her before she leaves. Joni is still angry, and expresses her disapointment in him for not being a better person. Good moment. Then Nic appears, and gives him the kiss-off speech, sneering that he is nothing but a sperm donor and an interloper, and that if he wants a family, he can go somewhere else and make his own. Paul, knowing he is in the wrong, says nothing in his defense, and leaves. Effective moment. But it is not only the last time we see him in the film, it is the last time he even comes into play. Nobody speaks of him or for him, to defend or castigate him; he is completely excommunicated, as if he was never there. All that remains in the film is that Jules makes an emotional flowery speech about the difficulty of marriage (while neglecting to admit that the infidelity was her friggin' idea, not his), everyone cries, Joni goes to college, the end.

I felt betrayed. I certainly did not want some sort of pat happy ending where everyone becomes one big lovey extended family, but the harsh, punishing tone of this ending was totally at odds with the humanistic ebb and flow that preceded it. Not to mention that the movie spends all this time suggesting that people can be right and wrong at the same time, and disagreement is part of being your own person, but then turns around and has everyone unite under Nic while she makes an autocratic decision. The more interesting scene would have been to, say, have Joni mirror Jules from earlier, and stand up to her mother and ask her not to speak to her father that way, that while navigating her own anger for Paul, acknowledge that he should be respected, which Nic has refused to do for the entire movie. Or for Jules to say that she's just as to blame as him for the affair, and that his love for the kids should not be dismissed.

Or more importantly, for the filmmaker to have one last scene with him, back in his old life the next day, or days thereafter, musing on what he had and what he lost, weighing the emotions of it all. The film has carried an omniscient p.o.v. to this point, and even if Paul is effectively gone from the kids' story there's no reason why we can't see his aftermath, especially since we've been allowed to see his life pre-fatherhood.

But no. The children and the director unite in casting out the man-whore from the tribal circle, and rendering him He Who Must Not Be Named.

Lisa Cholodenko is a lesbian, and I do not believe for a second she has any problems with men or fathers, or is in any way some sort of hoary stereotypical "man-hating dyke." I am sure all she intended was to make a compelling drama about everyday mixed-up people and how sometimes they connect and sometimes they clash. At one moment in the film, Jules suggests Nic has offered up an opinion that she is not even concious of knowing she had. And by choosing to present the last image of Paul as humiliated and mute, tarred-and-feathered as if he were a predatory child molestor, Cholodenko is somewhat culpable of that same unconcious communication as well, providing a resolution teetering dangerously close to a freshman-year level mentality of casual misandry. L.A. Weekly critic Ella Taylor praises this moment in her review by stating, "it says something about the mainstreaming of gay culture when a man is turned away from the front door of a lesbian home not because he's straight or because he's a man, but because his heedlessness has threatened the integrity of a family, and a marriage." I'm sorry to sound like a broken record, but what about the heedlessness of the parent who initiated the problem in the first place? Jules gets off lightly with a few nights on the couch and a couple curt conversations.

For that matter, what about the heedlessness of the children? Consider something for a moment: Paul did not hunt this family down and ask to be included. He had a reasonably happy life running his business and having short-term flings and thinking about family only as an abstract. But his children asked to meet him, they sought him out. And being a decent type, he took an interest in their lives and made himself available. And they took him up on it. Then, when he met their mothers, he sought to help out by giving Jules a job she wanted to do. And Jules accepted it. At no time is Paul ever depicted as being overbearing, forcing his company upon the family unit, or making any demands upon them. Yes, Paul committed a big mistake by sleeping with Jules and he certainly deserves to suffer the consequences of that choice, as does Jules when the kids look at her askance for days. But Jules gets to make her speech and he gets nothing? His worst sin is that in a moment of weakness, he said yes to a married woman who wanted to have sex with him. The woman who also happens to be the mother of a child he loves. And now these children, who plucked his name from the file cabinet, who wanted him to be in their lives, now suddenly just turn their heads and kick him to the curb because he's inconvenient and because their Alpha Mom said so? Talk about fucking selfish! Paul started out a happy bachelor, but fatherhood has now left him even more alone than he had been when the movie first started. These kids have ruined this man's life!

By these editorial choices, Cholodenko has thus failed to live up to the spirit of understanding that she promised in the build-up to this resolution, the notion that loving people work through conflict. If we are to honestly believe that this family would have been better off without ever knowing Paul, then she should have presented more bad personality traits in him to make him a credible threat. Again, I don't have a problem with the family writing him off: when Nic bellows "Get your own family," she's right. He didn't spend 18 years dealing with the teething and the pooping and the schooling, Nic and Jules did; that renders them real parents. Providing sperm no more makes you a dad than stuffing feathers in your ass makes you a chicken. But in a world where men who are much more than sperm donors have to be dragged kicking and screaming to show an interest in their children, Cholodenko has presnted us a model of patient, concerned late-term parenthood in Paul, and even if he doesn't deserve this family, he at least deserves the dignity of a good onscreen cry when he loses them.

Friends who saw the movie with me have stated that the movie suggests hope for reconciliation between Joni and Paul, because as she packs for college the morning after the fight, she chooses to take a gardening hat that he gave to her during one of their visits; i.e., she's not totally throwing away all reminders of him. However, I missed this detail, and I don't fully buy it, primarily because Jules is clearly depicted as also owning a similar style of gardening hat; as such, it could just as easily have been hers and not Paul's that gets taken to school. Moreover, even if my friends are right and the former scenario is what Cholodenko wants us to take home, that Joni will find room to forgive Paul by holding this totem of his, it is executed so quickly and so poorly that if an eagle-eyed moviewatcher like me can miss it, in all likelihood most of the audience will miss it as well. If she really wants us to believe their relationship will improve, the symbolism needed to be bigger; not hit-with-a-shovel obvious, just a little larger. But since the gesture is that small, it's just as likely that it doesn't actually exist.

I thought of foxes twice while watching this movie. Most obviously, when the story takes its turn into fluid sexuality, I was reminded of the stately (if often-maligned) Mark Rydell film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's THE FOX, where Keir Dullea is, for all practical purposes, a literal fox in the henhouse, coming between the long but somewhat stale relationship between Anne Heywood and Sandy Dennis. Gay and straight audiences alike I'm sure are grateful that Cholodenko's film does not take the dark demoralizing turn that Rydell's film did at its end, but I still had to wonder: must all films involving a triangle of gay and straight people end with someone destroyed? I guess in this film, Cholodenko does believe so. Perhaps despite his well-meaning nature, Paul is The Fox, who preys upon chickens because it is in his nature to do so.

And then I thought about one of the most important foxes in literary history, whose encounter with a wandering young monarch has sat at my bedside since I was a child, and still sits there today. A story that Nic and Jules very likely read to Joni and Laser when they were very young:

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

Over the course of an otherwise sweet movie, Joni and Laser found a fox named Paul, and engaged in a rite by which they established ties and made each other unique from the hundreds of anonymous adults and children in the world. And Paul grew to become very happy whenever he knew he would be in their presence. But then when words led to misunderstandings, the children coldly withdrew from the rite. And the director of this movie suggests that they are allowed to shirk any responsibility for the fox whom they have tamed.

And that is a clear indication that the kids are NOT all right.

8/7/10 UPDATE:

A recent posting today by Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere reveals that movie critic Scott Feinberg recently obtained an earlier draft of the script from March 2009 which features a different version of Jules' showstopper speech, one that does offer a vigorous defense of Paul, and an altered ending in which on their way to drop Joni at college, Joni requests a stop to visit with Paul and mend fences with him. Theories abound as to why this superior ending was altered to the terrible one we have now, most suggesting that audiences demand that infidelity be punished somehow, and that the filmmakers accomodated this kind of outdated puritanism. If this is true, I am even more disappointed in Lisa Cholodenko for going against her original instincts.

It's still not all right.


  1. Well said, though I haven't been able to see it yet.

  2. Damn right! I hated the end of Laurel Canyon too... as it approves of punching out your mom and her lover if they try to bond with your fiancee via drugs and loose sex. Cholodenko clearly has problems with satisfactory resolutions (That's what she said... if she was a lesbian who occasionally missed c**k)

  3. I was absolutely deflated after the film ended. I turned on it. Why make Paul such a flawed, sympathetic, three-dimensional character to just throw him to the wolves?

    I liked him too much not to see any closure there and it kind of pissed me off.

  4. Yes, completely agreed. I was so disappointed by the dropping of Paul that it took me hours of conversation to decompress after the movie ended.