Friday, August 27, 2010

One of the reasons I’ve never tried to parlay my love for cinema into a full-time reviewing gig – besides the fact that the field is crashing thanks to the implosion of newspapers – is that, as a poet, I relatively seldom watch an entire picture, at least not the way I’d want a genuinely good reviewer to do. I focus instead on those elements that have more-or-less direct analogs in poetry – writing, direction, problems of narrative, the score, the photography, editing. There is, in fact, so much more in film than just those elements that I’m always abashed to read a review that does a good job, for example, with the role of costumes or sets as it always exposes to me just how much of the film I actually missed while sitting there in the dark.

I can – and often do – watch actors with much the same eye as I do dancers, ice skaters or athletes. There are a handful of actors in each generation who seem to raise their craft to a level heretofore unimaginable to us mere mortals. Their bodies, their faces, everything their eyes do & don’t say, the corners of their mouths – all are in play whenever they take the stage. Their nostrils are in character. Many actors are great for a time – Robert De Niro would be an example, as was Marlon Brando – but then opt to get rich or strange rather than better. Some others (Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp) develop cults & thereafter struggle to not simply to play to that. Yet the very best actor, like the very best dancer (think Baryshnikov), can be a revelation at whatever they do, even sitting silent in a chair. In my life, I can think of just four actors who I think achieve that level of luminescence and hold it throughout their careers – Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Cate Blanchett & Julianne Moore. If they were doing Alpo commercials, I’d probably get a dog.

Julianne Moore is the absolute center of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, and offers one of her finest performances in the context of a remarkably strong cast, principally Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska (who herself shows signs of having the capacity to reach the Blanchett-Moore level as an actor) & Josh Hutcherson. Also fine are several supporting roles, most notably Yaya DaCosta as an employee in Mark Ruffalo’s restaurant who is having an ongoing affair with the boss, and Jaoquín Garrido as Luis, an older Mexican gardener Moore hires to help her get her landscaping business off the ground.

The Kids is an exceptionally well-conceived, smart, well-written & well-acted film, as dramatically tight a comedy as I’ve seen in years. The set-up is pretty standard theatrical fare – a stable foursome, on the cusp of change as Wasikowska’s character is about to depart for college, which is turned topsy-turvy by the introduction of a fifth character, Mark Ruffalo, the sperm donor who enabled Bening & Moore each to conceive one kid into their family. Hutcherson, the younger of the two kids, persuades older sister Wasikowska to find their donor, who then hires Moore to redo his untended Los Angeles back yard. All goes well until [spoiler alert] Moore, who is feeling unsure – and more than a little alienated – as the wifey in her gay marriage, anxious about her skills as a landscaper, a perpetual career-starter, takes one look at Ruffalo, comments that when he smiles she can see elements of her kids, and hops into bed with him. The rest of the film flows with the precision of a Swiss timepiece from that decision. By film’s end, everyone has learned something about themselves, not always happily.

Each of the major characters is shown to have a significant flaw, which is one of the things that makes this film credible even if Cholodenko is a little too systematic in her demonstrations of this. Yet I could not help wondering, the morning after I saw The Kids, what it means when a good character, someone whom the audience is obviously intended to identify with, the absolute center of this film, does something despicable. In the case of Moore’s character, it’s that she fires her assistant Garrido after he appears amused that his white lady boss is fucking the client on her very first job. He never says anything inappropriate, just grins, but Moore uses the occasion to grill him over his sniffling – he replies that he has allergies. Why, she asks, does a man with allergies pursue a career as a gardener? He replies that he likes flowers – one of the few less-than-strong bits of dialog in the film – and she dismisses him on the spot.

Moore, like every other main figure, gets her comeuppance in the end, but not for this. Luis stammers and asks to speak further about this, but she heads back inside the client’s house & he disappears from the film & our lives. Yet the morning after seeing The Kids, Garrido’s Luis is the character who lingers in my imagination. The narrative from his perspective is an utter tragedy, one we’re not allowed to see. And given the implicit politics of Moore’s character – she trained as an architect, took care of the kids, ran a Balinese import shop, is trying her hand in landscape design, and starts composting in response to Ruffalo, who owns an organic garden to go with his restaurant.

It’s not that Moore’s character is the only one that leaves serious damage in its wake – Ruffalo tells his waitress/fuck-buddy Tanya that they should stop sleeping together because he doesn’t want to be a 50-year-old guy with no family, not realizing that she is more than ready to make that commitment to him. Both of these actions not only leave behind some human devastation to the film’s peripheral characters, but both also have an icky racist element to them, which I don’t think is accidental. Cholodenko is actually saying something here.

But what and how clearly are the aspects I can’t quite figure out a day later. These elements are unsettling &, if you think about them, upsetting after-images to what, after all, is being marketed as the feel-good alternative family flick of the summer. Luis & Tanya may be as flawed as humans as any of the main figures in the picture, but the failure of The Kids Are All Right to explore those narrative threads further is precisely what separates film from life.