Like her first two movies, director Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is partially about a sexual intruder tearing a woman’s world asunder. In 1998’s High Art, grumpy, drug-addicted lesbian photographer Ally Sheedy reels fashion editor ingénue Radha Mitchell away from an uptight, art-phobic boyfriend. In Laurel Canyon (2002), there are two predators: an unapologetically promiscuous, 40-something record producer (Frances McDormand) and her far younger rock star boyfriend (Alessandro Nivola), who lure the repressed fiancée (Kate Beckinsale) of McDormand’s rigid son (Christian Bale) into a near ménage a trois.
This time, the stakes — not to mention the symbolism — are heightened considerably, as the woman being preyed on (Julianne Moore) is one-half of a child-rearing lesbian couple, and the sexual prowler (Mark Ruffalo) is the sperm donor that produced both of its offspring. In any Cholodenko outing, the foreshadowing of the tryst-to-be has as much subtlety as a demolition derby. Here, as Jules (Moore), who’s just relaunched her gardening business, and Paul (Ruffalo), an organic restaurant entrepreneur, plant flowers in his backyard, not only do the actors pant, leer, and throw back their hair accordingly — they use the word “fecund” to describe the flora. You can practically smell the approaching bedroom scene.
Yet with Cholodenko’s bludgeoning technique comes real heat and the genuine sense of captivity that all those trashy Zalman King skin flicks fail to generate. The scenes between Moore and Ruffalo are unquestionably erotic, but it’s not because of the nudity or Ruffalo’s Brando-esque magnetism or Moore’s lithe, freckled beauty that far transcends the “She looks great for 50” label. It’s the way the choppy editing breaks up the act into quick but lurid snapshots, which matches the carefree fun the two actors are having, the way Moore so naturally exhibits Jules’ wonderment at giving in to her impulse, at exploring the taboo of men. It’s a dastardly deed, undoubtedly, but somehow you relate as much with Jules anger, her desperate need for this sort of gratification — she lashes out, hilariously, at her Hispanic gardening assistant, who keeps interrupting the episodes — as you do with her guilt-laden reflections later on.
Ruffalo works less hard — he’s been playing this sort of aimless yet effortlessly suave drifter for over a decade — but his Paul is a creepier sort of ladies man than other Ruffalo roles, an overgrown bachelor far too old to be boasting about his seduction of a lesbian; in short, he’s a homewrecker. As he continues to slither his way into not only Jules’ life, but the lives of her partner, Nic (Annette Bening), their teenage son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska), we see a man toying with the playfulness of fatherhood but shunning the responsibility. And the damage he inflicts on this cozy, tight-knit family is as devastating as the unit’s attempts to regroup are touching.
The setup of Kids is intriguing, as Laser (a taciturn recluse) and Joni (a pale, somewhat uptight honor student) secretly track Paul down and come away with different impressions. Joni feels an instant bond with Paul, his Zen nature and crunchy granola ethics, while Laser is put off by his underlying smarm. Later, when the parents are introduced, Jules, who’s more free-spirited than her partner, feels the same draw her daughter did, while Nic, the authoritarian, a stickler for maintaining house and office rules, is as put off by Paul’s lack of ambition as her son. Bening, who is in fine form, expertly conveys how her Nic is the more perceptive of the two, more instantly aware of the danger Paul represents, who boldly refuses to shy away from Nic’s self-involved, nagging side — not to mention her alcoholism. She’s an external harridan with a heart of sugar, and her sadness at being suddenly unable to compete with Paul’s rugged charm is the heart of the movie.
But while The Kids Are All Right has plenty of heart, it’s frustratingly more subdued and low-key than you would expect from a storyline this potentially rich and a cast this strong. Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg (Keeping the Faith) should be commended for presenting a controversial, topical subject — gay marriage and the rearing of children — in as gentle and unpretentious a fashion as most nuclear family sitcoms. But as a result, the film lacks a certain momentum, and certain characters remain underdeveloped.
As Paul’s efforts to relate to Laser, to give him manly advice, fall repeatedly flat, the entire character of Laser starts to border on non-existent. Hutcherson gives the performance his all, tossing off the occasional smart-aleck line (“Why do you guys watch gay-man porn?” he asks his parents after finding their stash), but his character is all surface apathy and gloom, affected by nobody — there’s not much inside him and we don’t care what makes him tick. As Joni, Wasikowska fares way better, toeing the line between goody-two-shoes mommy-pleasing and rebellion. But what should be the most compelling aspect of the film — Joni’s new relationship with her blood father, his opening her up to sexual and personal freedom — is somehow cut off before it has a chance to blossom.
While Bening has a gift for playing these no-nonsense roles, we don’t buy in the end that her character is becoming less controlling or that she understands what might drive the livelier Jules into an affair. We still see Paul, despite his many flaws, as a fun match for Jules, and Nic as something of a joykill. And that’s a somewhat troubling feeling for a film that is otherwise championing familial bonds.