Sunday, September 12, 2010

The pleasures of alt cliché

That destabilizing man-thang gets a workout in "The Kids Are Alright."

Guess what - I saw another movie! And it was actually enjoyable, even if it was completely predictable. The movie was The Kids Are Alright, the lesbian-couple comedy which people had been recommending to me for weeks, because I'm gay and everything. I'm not sure why I dragged my feet on seeing it, but perhaps I feared it might be "gay" in the same way that Glee is "gay" - i.e., designed to make suburbanites like Joel Brown and Ty Burr proud of themselves for being down with the gay thing. Also, why not cast lesbians as the lesbians? I wondered. BUT, when you're looking for a movie - unlike when you're looking for a show - you often have only one (and sometimes no) choice, particularly when your partner won't sit through anything too grim or too gross, like Lebanon. Which is why we basically only see movies when the latest Pixar is out.

To be honest, my gay antennae did crackle occasionally during Kids, for all its good intentions. The straight sex, for instance, is shot with a refreshing dash of raunch, but the, uh, lezzie licking occurs beneath a heavy blanket - while the girls watch gay man-porn, of all things. Hmmm. Not that there's anything wrong with that - and I guess that's what you get when you cast Warren Beatty's main squeeze as a lesbian. Points to director Lisa Cholodenko, though, for choosing clips from The Best of Colt (at left), perhaps my fave old-school beefcake series. And I did enjoy creating my own "In a world where" Kendall-style trailer for the film during this sequence ("In a world where heterosexuals have sex in broad daylight, but homosexuals only do it under heavy blankets . . .").

Still, despite such occasional misgivings, I admit I was largely charmed by The Kids Are Alright, because it did two things very well: it updated a classic melodramatic set-up quite cleverly, and it featured some really terrific screen acting. The classic set-up is that of the romantic interloper (or the fox in the henhouse, if you will). Here, a comfortable, but inevitably somewhat discontented, yuppie/hippie couple (Annette Bening as the yuppie, Julianne Moore as the hippie) who have raised two teen-aged kids together find themselves face-to-face with their anonymous sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) - whom the kids have sought out.

So far, so good. And I confess that as the movie's set-up had clearly been lifted from Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning, I hoped that Kids might have a drop or two of that classic's subversive zing. Alas, I must report, this was not to be; the movie might as well be called The Bourgeoisie Are Alright, because director Lisa Cholodenko shies away from really developing any of the conflicts latent in her material. The teenage boy's search for a father figure, the women's frustrations and longing for sexual freedom, the donor's manipulation of his Whole Foods hunk-dentity (indeed the whole question of the seductive, destabilizing masculine principle vs. the nurturing, stifling feminine one ) - these themes are hinted at, but always kept partially under wraps. Cholodenko skates gently over our awareness of them instead, expecting us to fill in the gaps she and co-writer Stuart Blumberg never actually write scenes for. But if Kids isn't exactly subversive, it's still very knowing, and its character's flaws and blind spots - as well as the gentle New Age afflatus of their self-aware conversation - are observed with the accuracy of a laser (the teen-aged boy is even called "Laser," while the girl's named after Joni Mitchell!).

Which leads to the movie's second great strength - its acting. This is the kind of film that makes you wish the Academy Awards gave out a statuette for Best Ensemble; the three leads are each simply perfect (although maybe I'd give the great Annette Bening, who is overdue for an Oscar, a slight edge among equals), with the two teens, Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska, only a small step behind. Here the performances fill in, minute by minute, the contradictory richness that the script leaves out in its scramble to affirm family values at the finish - a finish which is sweet, by the way, but might be even sweeter if it had been more hard-won.

But of course then we might lose sight of the movie's "See, gays are just like us!" subtext; perhaps the culture's not yet at a point at which filmmakers can give alternative hypocrisy quite the shake-down that Renoir gave straight society. But The Kids Are Alright still serves as an entertaining way-station on that cultural journey.

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