The Kids Are Alright ... but Is the Movie?

Superficially speaking, The Kids are All Right is a good film. But is it really alright that a man who'd been invited into a family's life is viciously banished?
02/10/2011 05:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Upon leaving a cinema after experiencing an enjoyable film, it's rather disconcerting to hear a tiny nagging voice in your head insisting that your feel-good attitude needs adjustment. This happened to some of us after seeing The Kids Are All Right. Superficially speaking, it is a good film, deserving of its accolades and three Academy Award nominations. And yet... (here's comes the tiny voice) "is it really alright that a man who'd been invited into a family's life is viciously banished, to live forever without the newly discovered love he now craves just because he made an enormously naïve mistake?"

The Kids Are All Right is not just about a straying partner whose extra-marital affair wrecks havoc on the family. The film is also about the incomparable, incredible experience of loving children. Ironically, Lisa Cholodenko's direction is so skillful and Mark Ruffalo's acting so nuanced, sperm donor Paul becomes a thoroughly sympathetic character. In a heart-wrenching scene at the family's front door -- most likely the scene that won Ruffalo his Oscar nomination -- Paul begs Joni for forgiveness and permission to stay in her life. She rejects him cold and then the offended mother cruelly screams at him, calling him an "interloper." Ouch! Paul's anguish is so palpable it's almost hard to watch. And this is why the film's integrity is compromised.

Does Paul deserve this treatment? It seems like we are supposed to think so. Other than submitting to a mutual sexual attraction with an inappropriate woman, his sins include being a college drop-out, riding a motorcycle, having casual sex with an employee of his restaurant and yes, being a late convert to ecological gardening. He is also non-verbal ("I love lesbians!") in opposition to the two main characters that talk in phrases such as "it hasn't risen to the point of consciousness for you" and "we just talked conceptually." Yet in spite of his shortcomings, Paul is a sweet man with an intuitive nurturing influence on Joni and her little brother, Laser. Feeling affirmed by Paul's fatherly attention, Laser finds the strength to end a friendship with a sadistic loser and Joni finds the courage to tell her over-controlling mother to back off.

"Smart, funny and overflowing with love," says an ad promoting the film in the New York Times. Well, not exactly. The film overflows with love but only among members of the family. "Outrageously funny!" say all the reviewers. Yes, until the last 20 minutes when the story suddenly grows dark, humorless and nasty.

People say the film's ending was inevitable. Given the circumstances, they say, it was the only logical ending the story could have without contaminating it with sentimentality. Some of us, however, believe that there might have been other endings, resolutions that didn't proclaim a loving man an evil influence. An interloper is someone who joins a group without any right to do so; somebody who selfishly interferes in other people's affairs. But Paul was invited into the family and made the mistake of falling in love with a woman who -- motivated by lust -- still loves her partner. While Julianne Moore's character Jules accepts responsibility for her role in the affair, she never once thinks about the consequences of banishing Paul from Joni's and Laser's lives. What's the message? People are dispensable when they make your life messy?