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Movie Review

The Kids Are All Right

Meet the parents: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore shine as a couple in the unconventional-family comedy ‘The Kids Are All Right’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 16, 2010

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Movies like “The Kids Are All Right’’ — beautifully written, impeccably played, funny and randy and true — don’t come along very often. It’s even better when they pop up in the middle of the summer silly season like an unexpected breeze. A comedy of boho-bourgeois manners, Lisa Cholodenko’s latest — it belatedly follows 1998’s “High Art’’ and 2002’s “Laurel Canyon’’ — is this close to a masterpiece, and it skewers the aggressively sensitive parenting styles of West Coast couples (and, cough, certain Boston suburbs) with a fondness that refuses to let anyone off the hook. Think of it as “Heather Has Two Helicopter Mommies.’’

Here’s the pitch: Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) live with their teenagers Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) in a trendy LA neighborhood. Actually, the kids refer to their parents as a single entity: The Momses. Nic’s a doctor and a perfectionist; the looser, groovier Jules was almost an architect once and is now maybe sort of kind of thinking about landscape design. The children share an anonymous sperm-donor daddy and, at 15, Laser is dying to know who it was. Joni, 18 and fresh out of high school, reluctantly makes the phone call. Enter Mark Ruffalo as Paul, dude extraordinaire.

What teenager wouldn’t want an instant father like Paul? He’s hip, he rides a motorcycle, he owns a restaurant that he stocks with produce from his nearby garden. He’s a locavore — you can almost hear the women passing out in the aisles at Whole Foods. And he’s a 50-year-old child who has made a career of charmingly wiggling out of any and all commitments. The sudden appearance of two grown humans who share his DNA strikes Paul as, well, kind of a trip.

The sudden appearance of Paul strikes Nic as just about the worst idea she has ever heard. Bening has rarely turned in a bad performance but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed her as much as I have here, so richly observed is Nic’s tightly wound maternal freakout. You could have a fine time just watching “The Kids Are All Right’’ with the sound off, entertained by Bening’s horrified facial expressions, but then you’d miss the gloriously embarrassing sequence in which Nic finally bonds with Paul over — what else? — Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.’’

And when was the last time Julianne Moore was allowed to have fun in a movie? Jules is the intuitive goofball of this pair — she lopes about the house like a much-loved Irish setter — and the appearance of Paul presents her with both a landscaping opportunity and a raging midlife crisis. He’s the freedom she had once, and it’s irresistible. “The Kids Are All Right’’ is surprisingly raunchy in places, but with a knowing comic edge: Nic and Jules’s reliance on gay male porn to start their fires works as character commentary, social anthropology, and farce, especially when they have to explain it to their mortified son. The various bedroom rumpuses here carry both pleasure and purpose, though. It’s refreshing to see good old-fashioned lustiness depicted onscreen even as sex (almost) never delivers the connection the characters need.

Genders aside, you know this couple; one of the more satisfying jokes in “The Kids Are All Right’’ is that good intentions and parental cluelessness are beyond sexual orientation. Nic and Jules have read all the books and they’ve taken all the seminars; they’re overflowing with self-help buzzwords about their “higher selves.’’ Their children still lovingly regard them as idiots. No wonder Nic treats red wine as the one friend who never, ever lets her down.

Ruffalo manages to make Paul an adorable jerk, but everything about the movie dances along that tightrope. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg have an ear for the ripe New Age double talk of aging boomers and a sharp eye for their characters’ most appalling blind spots. Jules would maintain she’s the least racist person she knows. Luis (Joaquín Garrido), hired to help her make over Paul’s backyard, might say otherwise if he hadn’t seen it all before.

As the movie progresses, all the characters go deeper into folly while insisting everything’s cool; that includes Joni, a beautiful, bookish sylph who hasn’t yet figured out the right way to rebel. Wasikowska, who has appeared in HBO’s “In Treatment’’ and was Alice in the recent “Alice in Wonderland,’’ lets her character come into her own with impressively subtle force. She doesn’t steal the movie from the grown-ups — who could? — but she does fly under the radar until it’s time for attention to be paid.

“The Kids Are All Right’’ has its flaws. Hutcherson’s Laser isn’t given enough to do and it’s clear that while Cholodenko knows a lot about people, teenage boys remain a mystery. The script’s turn toward seriousness in the last act is inevitable — the characters have to grow up some time — and a comedown from the giddy satiric heights of earlier scenes. But the very final moments are just right in their forgiveness and humanity, and in the way they reassert family as simply the people who know you well enough to put up with you. The kids are all right, this movie says; they watch us muddle through and then they try to do it just a little bit better.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

Related

'The Kids Are Alright'

Same sex — with the same family issues

Lisa Cholodenko wanted her film “The Kids Are All Right’’ to reflect every family and every family’s individual vulnerabilities.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko

Written by: Cholodenko

and Stuart Blumberg

Starring: Annette Bening,

Julianne Moore, Mark

Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska,

Josh Hutcherson

At: Coolidge Corner,

Kendall Square

Running time: 104 minutes

Rated: R (strong sexual

content, nudity, language, some teen drug and

alcohol use, flagrant

New Age psychobabble)

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