Monday, January 3, 2011

There's Got To Be A Mourning After

Life is messy. So is death. How people react to a death in the family, however, can vary widely.
  • Some people are relieved that death has finally come to a loved one who has had a terminal illness.
  • Some people find themselves in a state of shock (particularly if the deceased was the partner who took care of everything in their day-to-day lives).
  • Some people shut down emotionally and withdraw into a tight little world of anger and grief (often hiding behind thickly constructed walls of emotional armor).
  • Some people have developed such narcissistic personalities that they become used to wallowing in the spotlight. After years of making themselves the center of attention, they cannot understand why a dead person would divert a family's attention away from them.
Two new films deal with a death in the family. Yet the contrasts between the two families are quite remarkable:
  • One couple is in their late 30s, an upscale husband and wife whose grief has caused a total breakdown in communication; the other couple, in their early sixties, shows the ravages of time but are still very much in love.
  • One couple has retreated into the sterility of a meticulously-designed house that looks like it has never been lived in; the other couple's home glows with the messy warmth of humanity.
  • One couple resents the happiness of others and carefully keeps score of "who should have called" while the other knows exactly what to do in a moment of crisis and is the envy of their friends for the stability of their relationship and their natural ability to roll with the punches.
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When Rabbit Hole (which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama) premiered on Broadway, Ben Brantley opened his review in the New York Times with the following statement:

"The Biltmore Theater had better be paid up on its flood insurance. Rabbit Hole, the wrenching new play by David Lindsay-Abaire that opened there last night, inspires such copious weeping among its audience that you wonder early on if you should have taken a life jacket. Do your best, though, to keep your eyes clear. Otherwise, you might miss some of the most revealingly nuanced acting to be seen on a stage or screen this year."

There are numerous reasons why the playwright's screen adaptation will probably leave audiences cold (some critics are already citing Nicole Kidman's purported use of Botox as a contributing factor). However,  I'm willing to bet that -- just as it did with Jack Goes Boating -- opening up the story for cinematic treatment let all the depressive air out of the balloon full of dramatic claustrophobia that impacted live audiences during the play's run. Director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) claims that:

“I’ve always been most attracted to stories about people trying to connect, trying not to be alone, and to characters who are chipping away at their walls. All my films share that. They’re all about people looking for that scrap of light at the end of the tunnel. They are each done in completely different styles, but they share that same soul, if you will. I loved that Rabbit Hole is a story not only about loss, but about the loss of communication that comes with it. I found myself alternately weeping and laughing my way through it. I usually like to develop my own scripts but this felt so deep, so mature, and so rich that it knocked me right off that course. My interest was instantaneous and I dropped everything.”

In a most surprising way, the film may have refocused part of its message by showing that money can't buy everything. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) don't seem to have any financial worries. She used to work at Sotheby's, he's a well-paid graphic artist at an advertising agency. Their home is tastefully decorated, with everything in place. Eight months after their four-year-old son's accidental death, the depression and tension between the two are not just palpable, they threaten to drive the couple apart.
  • Howie tries to hold onto the memory of his son by watching old videos.
  • Becca keeps erasing traces of their son's past.
  • Howie is willing to keep attending a grief support group.
  • Becca (who is showing increasing signs of atheism) has lost patience with the way some people use God as an excuse for catastrophic losses.
  • Howie would like to try resuming the couple's old social life.
  • Becca wants to stay at home, offering her husband predetermined excuses in case anyone asks Howie why they turned down a dinner invitation.
Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) in Rabbit Hole
Photo by: JoJo Whilden

The long and short of it is that Becca has become a depressed drip, angry at her sister for getting pregnant and furious at her mother for trying to equate the death of Becca's 30-year-old brother death from a heroin overdose with the death of her four-year-old son, who ran out into traffic and was hit by a car. As Tammy Blanchard, who play's Becca's sister Izzy, remarks:

“Izzy is a hip, spirited woman who has always been a fun-loving partier. She can’t keep a job, she still lives with mom and yet she’s had this wonderful thing happen to her. Becca, on the other hand, has done all the right things in life, made all the best decisions, worked very hard, and yet the most horrible thing imaginable has happened to her. There’s this sense of unfairness they are both aware of, and one of the big questions of the story is how are these two very different sisters going to cope with how things have turned out?”

Jason (Miles Teller) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) in Rabbit Hole
Photo by:  JoJo Whilden

Complicating matters is Becca's decision to contact that teenager whose car killed her son.  Jason (Miles Teller) is open to meeting with her, even if Becca's behavior borders on stalking. He eventually shares with Becca the comic book he has been illustrating in which action heroes and regular people can exist in parallel universes, a dramatic gimmick which finally brings Becca some peace of mind.

What's most notable about Rabbit Hole is that the film's dramatic core should lie with Nicole Kidman but doesn't. As Nat (Becca's well-meaning mother) Dianne Wiest has some good moments (I especially liked her description of how she told off a neighbor who was trying to live vicariously through Nat's grief over her son's death). Nat, however, caught between the earthiness of her pregnant daughter Izzy and Izzy's musician boyfriend Augie (Giancarlo Esposito) and Becca's boring, self-serving martyrdom. Sandra Oh provides a nice foil as a member of the grief support group who ends up getting stoned with Howie and almost leading him to the brink of infidelity.

Gaby (Sandra Oh) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) in Rabbit Hole
Photo by: JoJo Whilden)

Howie, however, is a real stand-up guy. In a beautifully complex and layered performance, Aaron Eckhart captures a man of intense emotions who is terrified of losing the memory of his son, still very much in love with his wife, but trying to get Becca to move on with her life. His performance has the kind of solid and natural masculinity one expects from George Clooney. A fine actor in his own right, Eckhart ends up walking off with the picture.

The strangest thing about Rabbit Hole is that, when the film ends, the viewer realizes that he has felt little to no compassion for Becca and Howie. In spite of their grief -- and all of its inherent drama -- they've proven themselves to be rather boring couple. Here's the trailer:

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Mike Leigh's naturalistic new film, Another Year, also begins on a note of depression as a tight-lipped and haggard-looking woman named Janet (the superb Imelda Staunton) visits a health clinic in London in an attempt to get some sleeping pills. All Janet wants is a cure for her insomnia, but it's obvious that other factors are at play. When she is sent to a counselor who asks the patient if she can think of one thing that might make her life better, Janet bitterly replies "Another life."

Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent)

That's how the audience meets Gerri (Ruth Sheen) who, along with her warm and wizened husband Tom (Jim Broadbent) is living a contented, stable existence. Tom's work as a geological engineer (or, as Gerri explains it, "He digs holes") keeps him busy, while his time spent in the garden and the kitchen offer him a creative outlet. As a mental health professional, Gerri has easy access to a deep and calming reservoir of empathy for her patients and friends. When Tom's sister-in-law dies in her sleep, Tom, Gerri, and their grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) effortlessly guide the grieving Ronnie (David Bradley) through the funeral and take him back to their home for a brief stay.

While Rabbit Hole's control freak Becca is busily erecting impenetrable barriers to protect her emotional boundaries, Gerri tends to reach out and lend a helping hand to others. Unfortunately, three people in her life are so wrapped up in their own depression and alcoholism that there is just so much help she can offer.
  • Ronnie's aggressive son Carl (Martin Savage) is a bitter young man who shows up late for his mother's funeral, is filled with hostility toward his father, and scares away the mourners who have come to pay their respects.
  • Tom's boyhood friend from Derby, Ken (Peter Wight), is a lonely alcoholic bachelor who is afraid to retire from the job that has defined his existence for his entire adult life.
  • Gerri's co-worker, Mary (Lesley Manville) is an extremely needy alcoholic who never connects the dots between her drinking and all the things that continue to go wrong in her life. When Joe finally brings home a girlfriend, Mary takes this new relationship as a personal betrayal. When she unexpectedly arrives at Tom & Gerri's house following the funeral for Ronnie's wife, Mary has no understanding that her needs can't always come first.

Ronnie (David Bradley) and Mary (Lesley Manville)

The contrast between Rabbit Hole and Another Year could not be more striking (and not just because of the age difference between the two sets of protagonists). Tom and Gerri have souls that have survived a lot together and a house that has been a home. While they each find satisfaction in their work, their ability to put the needs of others above their own makes the couple far more sympathetic than Becca and Howie.

The contrast between the strong foundation of love and honesty upon which Tom and Gerri have built their lives and Ned's desperate drunkenness, Mary's achingly alcoholic loneliness, Ronnie's total inability to communicate, and Carl's toxic anger is what forms the inner strength of Leigh's delicately nuanced film as it moves from one season through another.

Mary (Lesley Manville) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen)

This is very much an ensemble effort, with brilliantly underplayed performances by Jim Broadbent, Peter Wight, and David Bradley. In supporting roles, Michele Austin shines as Tanya (a black healthcare provider at the clinic) and Philip Davis has some nice moments as Janet's husband, Jack.

However, to watch Ruth Sheen's earthy radiance as Gerri, Lesley Manville's narcissistic, neurotic characterization of Mary, and Imelda Staunton's hopeless and helpless portrayal of  Janet is to witness three physically imperfect yet superbly realized performances by actresses who have earned every one of their wrinkles.  In contrast to the alabaster-like surface that has become Nicole Kidman's eternally unfurrowed brow, every moment of life experience is written on their faces. Here's the trailer:

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