I'm not a lesbian, so when I tell you that watching Julianne Moore play one in The Kids Are All Right is unbelievable at best and insulting to lesbians at worst, feel free to scoff and roll your eyes. But at one point I was a landscaper, and so when I tell you that watching Moore play one in this film was insulting to landscapers, you'd best believe it.
The usually dependable Moore is horribly miscast as Jules, the co-star of this modern-day family indie drama. What's worse is that she seems to realize it early on. While Moore is enough of a professional not to totally mail in the performance, even a stellar supporting cast and an interesting premise can't save the film from slowly sinking as it sails into port.
Moore alone isn't to blame. She's the victim of a script that simultaneously asserts how normal a non-traditional family unit can function and then swiftly undercuts the idea with a preposterous plot twist. Because that twist comes relatively early on and doubles as the film's only real conflict, the result is a mess. I cringed often, laughed seldom.
Jules is married to Nic, played by Annette Bening in what seems like her first leading role in years. They have two teenage children who are half-siblings, thanks to each of the women giving birth using the same anonymously donated sperm. The kids are curious about Mr. Sperm Donor, and so once sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska) turns 18, they're able to track down their father in what appears to be just a matter of days. It's a scenario we've seen in dozens of other movies and after-school specials on TV, with varying degrees of emotional conflict as the offspring meet their biological parents.
Fortunately in this film, the meeting of father and children is refreshingly drama free. Dad is Mark Ruffalo, a late 30-something bachelor who runs an organic farm, owns his own restaurant, rides a motorcycle and always appears to have last shaved three days ago. Yeah, he's that guy. Conveniently, he also lives within miles of his newfound spawn in San Francisco.
Ruffalo plays the dad, Paul, with ease—perhaps too easily. He lives a life of comfort, charming every woman he interacts with as he slowly meanders through what should be a stressful life (I know people who run farms and I know people who run restaurants. There's a reason I don't know anyone who does both). That mellow self-confidence permeates the first meeting with his kids. Joni is enchanted—she can't believe that her dad is such a hunk. Fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is more ambivalent.
Both kids—especially Joni—are more than all right in these initial scenes with Paul as they play curious skeptics. There are some wonderfully awkward moments, highlighted by the first phone conversation when Paul tells Joni, "I love lesbians."
You'd think that because Joni and Laser seek out their dad without the knowledge of their moms, we'd have ourselves some conflict, or at the very least some tension. The moms are initially surprised their children kept them out of the loop, but they don't seem especially concerned, even when son and daughter seek out further contact with Paul. Yeah, they see through his Jack Johnson-ish façade, but Paul manages to squelch any awkwardness. He even hires Jules to landscape his backyard.
Which brings us back to Moore as the lesbian landscaper. From here on out (and we are only about 45 minutes in), The Kids Are All Right rapidly disintegrates. Without giving too much away, just know that Jules' foray into landscaping evolves into other ridiculous ventures. There's nothing subtle about the twist, a sort of desperate-lesbian-housewives thing, and the laziness of both the writers and actors is exposed in clunky scene after clunky scene. What's worse is that Moore never escapes the "I'm-a-straight-woman-playing-a-lesbian-look-at-me!" vibe. That is not a vibe we should be feeling in 2010. Moore is a better actor than that.
In this film, at least, Bening is better. She keeps things from completely drowning thanks to a sharp performance in which her character must balance the demands of her job as a doctor with the ever-evolving shift in family dynamics as the dad enters the picture. At times it feels like Nic is parenting two teenagers as well Jules, who has never really found her professional niche. There is no shortage of exasperation on Nic's part—in one of the film's best scenes she calls out Paul as an interloper, to which he has no response. Also, in stark contrast to Moore, Bening appears comfortable in her character.
Now I'm exasperated. The Kids Are All Right squanders some major potential here. Maybe I should just be glad that Moore didn't break out the atrocious Southie accent from last season's guest appearances on "30 Rock." As a native Bostonian, that would have been one straw too many.
The Kids Are All Right continues at the Wilma Theatre.