In movies about the consequences of grief, nothing is gained if the grief overwhelms not only the characters in the film but also those of us in the audience. Filmmakers must bring us into the sorrow without wiping us out.
"Rabbit Hole," directed by John Cameron Mitchell and written by David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as parents attempting to cope with the accidental death of their 4-year-old son eight months before. Becca (Kidman) wants to move away from their comfy middle-class suburban New York home and all its reminders of little Danny. Howie (Eckhart) wants to surround himself with everything that summons up his son.
Virtually every scene in the movie underscores this stark divide. Although the filmmakers try to avoid roteness, the conflicts tend to play out along circumscribed lines. This gives the film a seesaw sameness. It's all a bit too diagrammed.
It doesn't help that Lindsay-Abaire, who has expanded the parameters of his play, provides Becca with far more of a back story than Howie, about whom we learn relatively little. There's a generic quality to his heavy-duty sadness. In terms of her own family history, Becca has more to work through and, consequently, Kidman, as an actress, has more to work with.
We are repeatedly confronted, for example, with Becca's fraught relationship with her younger sister (Tammy Blanchard), and with her mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), who herself lost a son years ago. We can sense, and this is a tribute to the performers, just how frayed these connections were even before the tragedy.
Although the film's ostensible centerpiece is the back-and-forth between Becca and Howie, the sharpest scenes are between Becca and her mother. Kidman has a tendency to seem closed-off even in movies, such as "Moulin Rouge," where she is supposed to be expansive. (She was perfect casting for the remake of "The Stepford Wives.") For all the turmoil she enacts in "Rabbit Hole," Kidman still looks as if she could benefit from a good thawing-out. But, especially in her scenes with Wiest, who is marvelous, Kidman drops her guard and opens up. The programmatic pain turns into real pain.
The filmmakers recognize that showing unrelieved misery doesn't serve the cause of understanding misery, and so they pepper the proceedings with humor, often black but sometimes gray or off-white. This is a movie about people who are not really certain how to mourn, and their contortions at times carry a grim levity.
This shows up most pointedly in the support group scenes where grieving parents take turns opening up. Fed up with the feel-good nostrums she believes are being spewed, Becca lashes out at a couple who have put their faith in God. Despite, or perhaps because of her air of enraged triumphalism, she comes across as an uncaring jerk. She feels too much – and yet not enough. (The best thing about the support group sequences is the introduction of a character played by Sandra Oh, who has a flirty camaraderie with Howie.)
"Rabbit Hole" is least believable in the scenes in which Becca secretly dogs the trail of the teenager, Jason (Miles Teller), who was driving the car that accidentally killed her son. Jason is working through his own grief by concocting a comic book whose "Alice in Wonderland"-ish contents suggest the film's title. The rapprochement between these two sufferers seems too pat – it's another nostrum, but one we and Becca are meant to take seriously.
With a movie this steeped in dreariness, the rewards for watching it should be commensurate. This doesn't quite happen.
For all its sympathy and intelligence, "Rabbit Hole" is ultimately too safe an experience for such a free-form tragedy. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some drug use, and language.)
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