All the Single Men

Posted on February 26, 2011 by

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Pre-Oscar Meditations: The Kids are Alright, Juno and the American Family

By Soheil Rezayazdi

It takes a lot to offend me, and much more to offend me as a man. You gotta hit just the right nerve. To date, only two works of art have ever done it. Both were seriocomic indie films about American families. The first was Juno. The second, I’m afraid, is The Kids Are All Right. I say “afraid” for two reasons: 1) Unlike JunoThe Kid Are All Right is a terrific film until the offending turn, and 2) my feelings for it remain murky, uncertain. I’m not sure if it’s saying what I think it’s saying. I hope I’m wrong, but something (perhaps my own righteousness) tells me I’m not. In short, I read both films as saying roughly the same thing: Life’s messy, and it gets a whole lot messier when we stray from the confines of the family unit. What follows is a personal, spoiler-studded take on the two films.

Let’s start with Juno, a film I’ve written about before. That movie rattled me enough that I felt compelled to create a MySpace account for the sole purpose of messaging Diablo Cody. She never replied. I didn’t expect her to. I wrote the message, foremost, for myself. Something about the film upset me, and I needed an excuse to organize my thoughts. Why did this feel-good indie comedy leave me so unsettled? It wasn’t the quirkistan dialogue, nor was it some underlying sense of feeling pandered to by the film’s hyper-hipster aesthetic. Those things mildly annoyed me; they didn’t unnerve me. I kept coming back to variations of the same question: How does the film feel — and how am I supposed to feel — about Jason Bateman‘s character?

Here’re some snippets of what I wrote to Cody:

Bateman is out of his element in the family-oriented suburbs, and it takes the idea (or the threat) of a kid to make this hit him on a visceral level. Suddenly, with the notion of an adopted child, he realizes he can’t fake it anymore; he can’t pretend to enjoy where he is and what he does. What’s more, he shouldn’t, for the sake of his soon-to-be child. So he makes a decision before they adopt the baby, to avoid the fiasco of divorce with children…

The film defines what is socially acceptable and what is not; clearly wanting to pursue a career in the city and not having a child at Bateman’s age is unacceptable to you. Why else would you kick his character to the curb once he makes [his] decision, excluding him from the rest of the film? Why else would you give [Jennifer] Garner a number of lines mocking his lifestyle (“your shirt is stupid”) and not afford Bateman the same?…Why else would you associate his desires with pedophilia, as if to imply that his unbridled selfishness will invariably lead down a path of big-city hedonism and immorality?

That last one’s the real kicker. Part of me doesn’t want to believe that, in the otherwise effective slow-dance scene between Bateman and [Ellen] Page, you were suggesting that Bateman was coming on to her…But, again, why else would the scene begin with Bateman watching Page out of his window with a lecherous grin? Why else would he get defensive and ask her why she visits him so often?…

I’ve used this “why else” construction because I know there are possible answers to these questions I just haven’t thought of…

But the pattern remains, and so does my question: Why were you so hostile to this character? Because he realized he didn’t want to adopt a child and have a proper family? Becuase his version of avoiding normalcy isn’t cute and innocent like Ellen Page and Michael Cera’s? Or, rather, that avoiding normalcy is all fine and well at their age, but a man Bateman’s age needs to settle down and begin acting like a proper man — a father?

Is that really what you’re saying?

OK, so I was flustered. My defenses tend to erupt when I feel like someone — be they filmmaker or friend — makes value judgements defining acceptable social behavior. I’m a lover of Claude Chabrol and Luis Bunuel: Filmmakers who tear down such constructions, revealing their often arbitrary (and ideological) nature. Like them, I’m not anti-family. I’m anti-family-is-the-only-option. I’m against imposing definitions of normalcy on people. I recoil when others do so. Something innate in me believes people have the right to lead their lives as they choose (to the extent that they don’t harm others in the process, of course). It’s not my place to judge behavior through the prism of my own personal beliefs, no matter how tempting. I’m what you call a social liberal.

So I resent filmmakers who use the medium to codify normal and abnormal behavior. Cinema has the unique ability to do this. No other art form can mimic our world in all its sound and vision. The medium can give glimpses of a better world with remarkable verisimilitude. But it can also impose a dogmatic vision of right and wrong, morality and immorality. It can harden the status quo. In Juno, the evidence suggested to me that Cody punished her character for not wanting to settle down with a wife and child in the suburbs. Again, I have nothing against settling down with a wife and child in the suburbs. Some of my favorite people on earth fit that description. What I’m against is defining this specific life path as normal, natural, and inevitable. Such definitions imply that those who choose an alternate path are abnormal, immoral (as in Juno), or simply delaying the inevitable (as in The Kids Are All Right).

Cody’s script mocks Bateman’s cool-guy persona as immature. In doing so, it defines adult male maturity (a father with a job he hates) and immaturity (not that). It places a severe value judgement on Bateman’s decision to seek a divorce. The film conflates this decision with an unforgivable moment implying that he wants to have sex with a pregnant 16-year-old. This scene, the aforementioned slow-dance, ranks among the most maddening movie moments I’ve ever witnessed. It confirms the conservative idea that some relationships just aren’t proper. Among the lessons I learned from Juno: A teenage girl shouldn’t befriend an adult male, because there’s always the chance he might make a left-field pass at her. The film, in short, deems their friendship inappropriate. It also associates Bateman’s wish to leave the marriage with aberrant sexuality. Men like Bateman, the film tells us, don’t have self-control. Not only can they not hold down a marriage, hell, they’ll even put the moves onpregnant 16-year-olds.

It doesn’t take long to spot the parallels between Bateman in Juno and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right. Both films go out of their way to make the men look, for lack of a better word, cool. Bateman digs Sonic Youth and obscure gore movies. He wears hipster shirts. He plays music. He likes and does the things young people do — the things people often abandon in the name of marriage and family.

In a way, The Kids Are All Right picks up where Juno left off, showing us what happens to Bateman once he leaves his wife. The film gives us another cool-dude male — this one single — who makes inappropriate sexual decisions, gets punished, and eventually discarded by the film altogether. Ruffalo leads a low-stress life as a restaurant owner. He lives by the mantra of “chill.” He flirts and sleeps around, not contributing much to society, but not doing any damage to it either. The film feels he needs to grow up. He sleeps with a married woman (Julianne Moore, superb) and decides, rather abruptly, that he too wants to be married. So he latches on to her family; he decides that his previous content was superficial, incomplete. He decides, and the film suggests, that an unmarried male’s life is dictated by self-absorption and hedonism. On a long enough timeline, it seems, all men will realize that a fulfilling life requires a family. Organic farming and Joni Mitchell records will only get you so far. Annette Bening’s character says it for the filmmakers: ”You’re a fucking interloper. If you want a family so much, go out and make your own!”

Ruffalo hears that line, kicks a trash can, and disappears from the movie. Meanwhile, the film’s central couple goes on to resolve its issues. We get closing shots of the married couple (gay, by the way) locking hands while their son grins. It’s not wine-and-roses happy, but it’s far from ambiguous. The family will survive. Moore, the unfaithful wife, has learned her lesson. She’ll emerge stronger for it. But what of Ruffalo? Does he evolve, does he find peace? The film doesn’t care. We never see him again. He’s off the grid, outside of the family unit. The married woman receives forgiveness; the single man exits in shame.

Social conservatives argue gay marriage threatens our social bedrock. The Kids Are All Right seems to think the same thing about single men. As A. O. Scott noted in his initial review, “Nothing is more disruptive to domestic order than an unattached heterosexual man. In mid-19th-century America, anxiety about guys more or less like [Ruffalo] drove movements for social and religious reform, and [director Lisa] Cholodenko suggests that those advocates for temperance and other remedies may have had a point.” The film, clearly progressive in its same-sex politics, gestates from status-quo beliefs on the necessity of marriage. Without it, the movie argues, we’d have chaos — messy, hedonistic chaos. So Cholodenko does the logical thing: She punishes the character she paints as a threat to the institution.

(To be clear, everything about The Kids Are All Right, including the handling of this material, is more delicate than Juno. No one should mistake this analysis for equivalence. Yes, both film’s feel like refurbished after-school specials, complete with domestic moralizing. And yes, both tell gimmicky stories about pregnancy. But The Kids Are All Right isn’t “2010′s Juno.” I found the movie offensive, on a personal level, but that doesn’t deny the artistry with which it tells its story.)

There’s a thought I can’t escape. Perhaps these films hit me so hard because, in the end, they’re right. And I don’t want to believe them. I want to believe that a married man can befriend a teenage girl without turning into a creep. I want to believe that a single, adult male can lead a rewarding life. I want to believe that marriage, though pleasant for some, isn’t a necessary condition for happiness. I want to believe such necessary conditions don’t exist, that people can defy norms without feeling somehow incomplete. I want to believe those norms are arbitrary, that humans can challenge them and carve their own way, free of inertia. I want to blame our weaknesses on society, not humanity. But what if I’m wrong? What if people need rules — like marriage, like religion, like social norms — to keep them from acting on ugly impulses? What if men, being what they are, really shouldn’t befriend teenage girls — not just because society frowns upon it, but because they have a genuine tendency to let their instincts run wild? How the thought depresses me. To think, we’re so nefarious that we need artificial barriers just to protect us from ourselves! Maybe, in the end, these films work because they unnerve people like me.

Soheil Rezayazdi

This post originally appeared on Print the Legend. Republished with permission.

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