In The Kids Are All Right, two affluent hyperparents fret about their marriage as well as their teenage children, the elder of whom is leaving for college while the younger struggles to find his place in the world. Enter a tall, dark stranger to muddy the latently troubled waters, and you have the makings of a big, fat Hollywood hit with comprehensive demographic coverage.
The catch is that Lisa Cholodenko's hugely entertaining domestic comedy, which opens this week, is rated R, and that its bougie couple, Nic and Jules, like to wind down by watching a little gay male porn in bed. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, where The Kids Are All Right was greeted with rapture, and in Berlin, where it won a Teddy for Best Award for Best Feature Film, nobody made a big deal out of the fact that the leads are a lesbian couple, played by two high-profile heterosexual actresses, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Or that their son (Josh Hutcherson) creates havoc by reaching out to the hitherto anonymous donor (Mark Ruffalo) whose high-quality sperm helped bring him and his sister (Mia Wasikowska) to life.
Then again, film festival audiences are a reliably gushing fountain of liberal sympathy. I ask Cholodenko, who is fielding press at Beverly Hills' Four Seasons Hotel, how The Kids Are All Right will play with conservatives. "I have the feeling that, in spite of themselves, people are going to enjoy it," she says. "That was our intention: 'You know what? You don't think you're going to relate to this, but you are.'" Her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, a Hollywood scribe who also wrote Keeping the Faith (2000), tactfully concedes that the far right is "not the film's prime demographic." "But," he adds by phone from New York, "the broad swath won't be put off, because this is a movie about two bickering, long-married people."
Blumberg is right. The joke that drives this strategically mainstream comedy is that the parents are an utterly conventional married couple whose vibe owes more to Tony Randall and Jack Klugman than to any overtly gay screen union I can think of. As Jules, a fortysomething overgrown child who has yet to find her calling, Moore may have snagged the movie's showstopping set pieces. But it's Bening, a control freak in cropped hair and a critically appraising stare, who serves up its funniest and most savage lines. The actress also makes a compelling case for neurotically take-charge moms who tenaciously hold the household together when its edges start to fray.
With her willowy figure and lengthy résumé of glamourpusses and nurturers, Bening wasn't an intuitive choice for the abrasive Nic. While casting the role shortly after she and Blumberg committed to a shift from drama to full-court comedy, Cholodenko recalls deciding that Bening's role "had to be someone who's like Mama Bear, sardonic and lovable even though she can be a bitch or a grouch, and, at that late age, still really sexy. There were moments in American Beauty that just slayed me, when Annette was standing in front of the pool having a meltdown as she was trying to sell that house. She has this robust spirit, and she can move between comedy and drama with such ease."
Bening's husband, Warren Beatty, reportedly pronounced The Kids Are All Right "avant-garde." That's a stretch for a picture as ardently commercial as this one, but the movie does offer an affectionately zany poke in the ribs of that loose, shape-shifting body known as the American family, in all its psychobabbling, navel-gazing glory.
It's also a pretty personal movie for both Blumberg, who was a sperm donor in college, and for Cholodenko, who started writing the script while she and her partner, Wendy Melvoin, a composer, were choosing an anonymous sperm donor to help conceive their son, now 4. "The source of so much of my anxiety in life and the tensions in my relationship is my anxiety about my kid. It's all very abstract and unfounded and ungrounded. We don't really understand why Nic is so neurotic," she says, admitting that she and Blumberg see much of Bening's character in themselves, and in their respective mothers. "Stuart and I felt strongly that the subtext there was: Here's my first kid, she's about to go off to college, have I done my job, has having a gay partner been a setback? These ideas of excellence, have I measured up?"
The Kids Are All Right presses lightly on some key chattering-class pressure points, but Cholodenko and Blumberg both play down the political ramifications. "The more casually we treat the fact that they're gay," Blumberg says, "the more doable the film becomes." And it says something about the mainstreaming of gay culture when a man is turned away from the front door of a lesbian home not because he's straight or because he's a man, but because his heedlessness has threatened the integrity of a family, and a marriage.
Still, there's no getting away from the fact that this is a gay marriage, or that the movie comes at a time of intense public debate about the issue. "A lot has come up," Cholodenko says. "Certainly Proposition 8 and the states that are passing gay marriage laws, and we're into this whole era when kids are conceived with donor insemination and are coming of age in gay families. These families are everywhere, and we're hearing their stories. It's a new era."
It's been seven years since the success of Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, a mid-to-mainstream indie about hetero liberation with a mild subtext of fluid sexual identity. For reasons I can't divulge without spoiling, that fluidity is openly explored in The Kids Are All Right, in a way that may offend not the radical right so much as the politicized lesbian feminists of Cholodenko's generation (she's 46) who pioneered the acceptance of gay life. "I come from that place," she says. "In a different era, it was important that you knew to stay with the women and the cause and all that nonsense. I'm sympathetic to people who feel superpoliticized about this, but for me, that just feels dated."
The Kids Are All Right will play just fine with a new generation of Glee and American Idol watchers who take the fuzzy borders between gay and straight in stride. And how will Cholodenko's son react to the film? "It's hard to say," she says. "I hope he doesn't see it till he's old enough to get it, and I hope in some way he'll be proud and not embarrassed."