There are three plots at work in The Kids Are All Right: a married couple hitting the rocks, two kids searching out their biological father, and a man coasting through his late 30s getting a major whiff of adulthood. All three of them are pretty good, too, the only problem is that despite being connected by obvious plot threads, they don't feel thematically or emotionally engaged with one another.
The couple is Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), who are preparing for the impending college-bound departure of their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska). Joni's younger brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), is pressuring her (as an 18-year-old) to inquire about their biological father's contact information. She concedes, and the two meet up with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the slightly hippie-ish owner of an organic restaurant. Laser's interest in meeting Paul is more about accomplishing the act itself than bonding, but Joni finds him fascinating, and soon Paul is being invited to dinner with the whole family.
All five members of the cast are good (and Bening has some stand-out moments), although none of these veteran actors are stretching, per se. Of the group, Ruffalo is the most effective; his overly affable reaction to anything and everything becomes the movie's primary conflict. Paul is used to getting by on a wide smile and a cool attitude, but his carefree demeanor clashes with not only the relative order of family life, but also with Nic's strict personality, and the more pressure to change Nic finds heaped on her shoulders, the more determined she becomes to stand her ground. Jules, meanwhile, is hired by Paul as the first client for her landscaping business, and she finds herself drawn to Paul more than she could have possibly anticipated.
The film puts these pieces of plot into the same box, but it never blends them together in a way that feels as messy and chaotic as real life. The screenplay, by Lisa Cholodenko (also the director) and Stuart Blumberg, can't shake the sensation that the viewer is watching a film, a film that's been plotted and considered, and arranged in a certain way. There's no doubting it's a well-written script, with plenty of observant comedy, but even when the movie tries to throw curveballs at the audience, they're so impeccably timed and carefully angled the film still comes off as very "colored inside the lines". As a director, Chodolenko's smart enough to let her actors claim their moments, as in those aforementioned Bening moments, by Moore in an affecting speech near the end, or through Hutcherson's well-timed sarcasm. She's also unafraid to let the movie's numerous sex scenes get almost awkwardly intimate, as if the audience is peering in on real couples.
Ultimately, though, the relative order of the whole project endures right up through the ending, where each one resolves independently and it's hard to see what the film, as a whole, has built to. Plenty of critics have praised it as a redefinition of what family is in the modern age, but excepting the kind of close-minded people who will never see the movie anyway, I don't see Kids overturning any major stones. It's a pleasant, frequently funny, occasionally moving experience that never seriously falters, but never adds up to anything particularly revelatory or hard-hitting, either. It's not good, it's not bad, it's just sort of in between...what's the phrase I'm thinking of?
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