Tag Archives: Julianne Moore

What Maisie Knew (2012)

I haven’t read What Maisie Knew, the classic work of fiction by Henry James. But after watching the superb adaptation by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, it’s only a matter of time before I do. What Maisie Knew is a short, impressionistic reading of James’ text that not only works on its own terms. It practically demands to be fleshed out into the full length novel.

Six-year-old Onata Aprile plays Maisie Beale, the daughter of Susanna, Julianne Moore, and Beale, Steve Coogan. When the film opens, Susanna, a well-known singer songwriter, and Beale, an art dealer, are in the final stages of a divorce. Susanna is a middle-aged wreck. Self-centered and confused, she’s more interested in “winning” Maisie away from her husband than in being a good mother. Beale is worse. A charming, affluent creep, he marries Margot, his daughter’s 20-year-old nanny, then promptly dumps her after she’s served her purpose, to get even with his wife.

If Susanna and Beale are two 50-year-old children, Maisie occasionally reveals herself to be a 6-year-old adult. She’s the only person, for example, to remember to give a pizza delivery man his tip. But unlike most Hollywood pre-teens, Maisie is a genuine 6-year-old, not a cute little muppet with an adult personality. What’s more, McGehee and Siegal so consistently center the film in Masie’s point of view that we soon begin to see the world through the eyes of the unhappy child of two squabbling parents. When Susanna and Beale scream at each other, we don’t think “oh shut up you assholes.” Like Maisie, we feel our world falling apart, our sense of stability and order shattered before it’s even begun to develop.

Unlike Maisie, however, most of us have enough experience to understand just how badly Susanna and Beale are acting. Beale marries Margot to impress the family court judge. But after he gets joint custody of Maisie, he’s no longer interested in acting like her father. Once he wins the prize, he no longer wants the prize. Susanna can, at times, be a sympathetic person, but she’s a textbook example of a horrible parent. Self-centered and narcissistic, she makes promises to her daughter she can’t keep, then pats herself on the back simply for doing her job, taking care of the child she brought into the world.

Soon, she’s not even doing that. Like Beale, Susanna finds a younger spouse, Lincoln, a handsome young bartender played by Alexander Skarsgård. Lincoln bonds with Maisie, beoming more of a real father than Beale, but also provokes the narcissistic Susanna’s wrath. She has no time for her daughter. She’s also resentful at anybody, Lincoln, then Margot, who attempts to fill in the gaps. If Susanna has little interest in being a good mother, she’s also very interested in the image of herself as a good mother. God help anybody who gets in the way. In one quietly horrifying scene, for example, Susanna drops Maisie off at the bar where Lincoln works, but doesn’t even bother to check whether or not he’s on shift that night. He’s not. “I’ll wait here until you go inside,” she says to Maisie, patting herself on the back, even as she abandons a six-year-old alone in lower-Manhattan.

What Maisie Knew ends on an ambiguous note. Lincoln and Margot, with whom he begins a relationship, have, almost by accident, become Maisie’s step parents. But Maisie is essentially an orphan. Like any neglected child, she’s at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Lincoln and Margot, for example, could have their own kids. Either Susanna or Beale could drop in any time they want and take her back. The courts could intervene. She could wind up under the control of child protective services. Even if everything works out “for the best,” if she’s adopted and raised by two attractive young step parents, she’s always going to wonder why her biological parents abandoned her. We have witnessed, over the course of 90 minutes, the murder of a 6-year-old’s soul.

A final note: In addition to casting a child actor in the lead, and consistently seeing the world through the eyes of a 6-year-old, Scott McGehee and David Siegel have also managed to retain James’ sense of social class. The bourgeois Susanna and Beale have not only abandoned their child, they’ve shuffled off their parental responsibilities to the working class Lincoln and Margot, robbing them of time they might have otherwise devoted to their own biological children, when and if they choose to have them.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right is the story of a straight man and his dick who both blunder into the lives of a lesbian couple and their two kids.

The straight man, Paul Hatfield, Mark Ruffalo, is a successful restaurant owner in his 40s who, years before, had donated sperm to a sperm bank for 60 dollars a pop. Dr. Nicole Allgood, Annette Benning, and Jules Allgood, Julianne Moore, are an affluent couple who live in the Venice section of Los Angeles. One day their two kids, 15-year-old Lazer, played by Josh Hutcherson, Peeta from from the Hunger Games, and 18-year-old Joni, named after Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, decide to contact the biological father they’ve never met. The results are more interesting than anybody would have guessed.

I decided to watch The Kids Are All Right when I realized that most of the films I’ve reviewed on this blog were directed by men. The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenka, who made the classic High Art, seemed like the perfect way to eat my feminist cultural vegetables. The problem is that it was such a good movie, simultaneously respectful of the lesbian subculture and politically incorrect, that I enjoyed it perhaps just a little too much. Let’s just say that if a man had directed The Kids Are All Right it would have been a lot more controversial than it was. I’m a little afraid that if I write honestly about the issues it raises I’ll get a Twitter hashtag calling for my cancellation.

Where is the dividing line between gay and straight? Are gay men ever attracted to women? Are lesbians ever attracted to men?

The Kids Are All Right entertains, then dismisses the fantasy so many straight men have about lesbians, the idea that they can be converted. Nicole and Jules at first glance seem like the perfect couple. Their house could serve as the model for a photo shoot on affluent, liberal California. There son is intelligent,sensitive, and athletic. Their daughter is a straight A student headed for a college that, in the film’s closing scene, appears to be Stanford. But something’s missing, some masculine energy, some “other.”

Lazer, the son, doesn’t quite get bullied at school, but his best friend is indeed that, a bully. Joni, the daughter, the pale, intense Wasikowska, who looks like Jules but acts like Nicole, is all too believable as an honors student who doesn’t have any fun. She has a boyfriend she plays Scrabble with. How he feels about her is anybody’s guess. They certainly don’t sleep together. Her best friend Sasha, Zosia Mamet from Girls, is constantly telling her to get laid. Eighteen isn’t particularly young to be a virgin. But being an 18-year-old virgin with two mothers is more confusing than being an 18-year-old virgin with a mother and a father.

Jules and Nicole, two middle-aged lesbians who should have much more clarity about their identity than a 15-year-old boy and an 18-year-old girl, seem just as confused. They have sex to beefcake, gay male porn. Nicole is a successful physician, and a very believable one — she interrupts sex to take calls from patients — but she’s also a borderline alcoholic, a tightly wound, hypercritical overachiever. Jules is more relaxed, but she’s also a woman who’s never had a real profession or career, a perennial ne’er do well who’s currently making a half-hearted attempt to get a landscaping business off the ground.

Paul Hatfield, played by Mark Ruffalo as a charismatic, west-coast hipster Guido — if The Situation from Jersey Shore moved out to LA he’d probably look like this by the time he gets into his 40s — blows in like a breath of fresh air. He meets Clay, Lazer’s friend, actually his bully, and quickly sizes him up. Clay’s an asshole, Paul says, something that’s more than confirmed when he tries to push Lazer into torturing a stray dog. Laser, thanks to his newly found, adopted, but actually real, biological father tells Clay to fuck off. Paul gives the repressed Joni a ride home on his motorcycle. That, in turn, causes a fight between Joni and Nicole, who doesn’t want her daughter riding a motorcycle, or, for that matter, having any fun whatsoever. Joni, like her brother, finally stands up for herself.

But teenage kids break away from ill-chosen friends and fight with parents. That’s part of growing up. It’s no threat to anybody’s family. Jules is another matter. Even though she’s been in a relationship with Nicole for decades, there are times when she doesn’t seem to know if she’s actually gay or straight. Her marriage with Nicole is so far from perfect it almost seems like abuse. Why hasn’t Jules ever had a career? Why can’t she get her landscaping business off the ground? Why is Nicole always drinking? Why are they always fighting about it?

The Kid’s Are All Right’s  crisis comes when Paul, who’s well off, decides to become Jules’ first client, to hire her to landscape the back yard of his house in Echo Park. Paul, we learn, as charismatic and attractive as he may be, is not as happy as he looks on the outside. Even though he can get all the sex he wants — The waitresses who work at his restaurant make passes at him. He doesn’t make passes at them. — he’s pushing 50 and has never had a wife or a family. When he meets Lazer and Joni, there’s an instant bond. They’re his biological children. He’s proud of them. He wants to be part of their lives, and he seems well on his way to doing just that. But then Jules seduces him. It’s perfectly consensual. But it’s Jules who makes the first move?

Jules’ seduction of Paul is more straight man’s nightmare than fantasy. Paul wants to be a husband and a father, but, up until now, he’s been nothing more than a sperm donor. One of the film’s strengths is the way Cholodenko suggests that very attractive, very promiscuous men will never be anything more than sperm donors. Sleeping with as many women you can, depositing your seed in as many places as possible, might just be a biological imperative, but it’s not emotionally satisfying. “I don’t want to be that unmarried, 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out,” Paul says to one of his waitresses, even as she’s making  a pass at him. “I want to have a family.” Sadly, at the end, Paul is in fact that unmarried 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out.

Jules is a lesbian like a vegetarian who occasionally backslides. Her diet may consist almost exclusively of plant food, but every once in awhile, she slips and eats meat. Jules is genuinely gay. She’s a lesbian not a bisexual. She’s mainly interested in vagina. But every once in awhile, she just gets a craving for dick. Paul Hatfield is nothing more than a junk food binge she later regrets, a pint of Haagen Daz or a bag of McDonalds french fries, both of which seem like a good idea before you eat them, but only wind up making you sick. The Kids Are All Right may be a comedy, but it points to a future where men are relegated to the sidelines. Paul works as a sperm donor, an occasional father figure, someone who might be fun to have around — He’s a straight man who can appreciate Joni Mitchell — but, when he gets out of line, they push him out of the family. “You’re an interloper,” Nicole says. “If you want a family so bad, build your own.”

The Kids Are All Right is a comedy, not heavy social commentary, but I couldn’t help but think of Hannah Rosin’s article “The End of Men.” It’s set in a world where there don’t seem to be any soul crushing dead end jobs, where the sun always shines, where teenage girls always get straight As and go to Stanford, and teenage boys are not only good at sports. They do the right thing and stand up to the bullies. But men almost feel superfluous. Even Paul, the film’s representative straight man, is a sensitive guy who owns an organic restaurant. The only working-class man we meet, Jules’ Latino assistant, gets fired on a stupid whim. Jules feels guilty about it, but, unlike Paul, she doesn’t pay any price for her bad behavior. She merely shrugs it off, and vows to do better the next time. Most of Paul’s employees at his restaurant seem to be women. Joni’s boyfriend may or may not be gay. When Nicole and Jules drop her off at Stanford, there doesn’t seem to be anybody else on campus. The Allgood family is a universe unto themselves.

What all this means to Laser when he grows up and wants a family of his own is anybody’s guess.