BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
"Rabbit Hole" ultimately drowns under the oppressive weight of its good intentions. It is so unrelentingly morose that it all but deadens its intended emotional impact.
Every character, no matter how minor, is grief stricken. Becca and Howie Corbett are unable to escape the lingering daily reverberations resulting from their 4 year old son dying 8 months earlier as he chased the family dog into the street. Becca's mother (the great character actress Dianne Wiest) has never recovered from losing her 30 year old son to a heroin overdose decades earlier. Becca's sister, Izzy, decides to join the family grief parade, only in her case it is as a result of getting in drunken bar fights as a way of letting off a little steam.
The inability of Becca and Howie to come to terms with their personal agony leaves them numb to life. They not only turn down social invitations, but have grown increasingly alienated from one another as they retreat into their own individual cocoons. Their inability to cope is reflected by the fact that they leave their child's room as it existed when he was alive; they sent the family dog to live with Becca's mother because they somehow associate him with their son's death and they further keep his car seat attached in the backseat of their vehicle.
Even the attempt at attending couple's counseling blows up in their face. When one of the grieving mothers tries to come to grips with her child's death by saying, "I guess God needed another angel," Becca responds, "Then why didn't he make another angel? He is God, after all!" Later, when her mother implores her to ponder whether there is a God, Becca explodes, "Then he is a sadistic prick!"
Fortunately, there are a few critical scenes that serve to mercifully relieve the tedium on screen, but they are far too brief to have any lasting effect. In particular, there is a powerful moment when Becca and Howie turn on each other and finally explode in such a harrowing fashion that you want to share their tears. The anguish of this couple was momentarily so visceral that it left you wishing that director John Cameron Mitchell had loosened the reigns a bit and allowed the wonderful actors who played them, namely Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, the freedom to more viscerally express the sense of doom that held them captive.
While it goes without saying that both Ms. Kidman and Mr. Eckhart are accomplished actors, they were literally operating in an artistic straightjacket playing the roles of the suffering Corbett's. It is not an exaggeration to say that they were given little more to do than wallow in their own crushing sentimentality.
As an aside, if you want to see the wonderful Mr. Eckhart display the full range of his talents, take another look at the wonderfully subversive "Thank You For Smoking" (2005). In it he succeeds to accomplish the near impossible, namely to play a cigarette manufacturer's public relations front man whose job it is to put a happy face on the joys of smoking cigarettes. It is an extraordinary performance in a quirky little movie that has never fully received its due.
Unfortunately, the incredible one-dimensional emotional tone of this movie served to alienate the audience from the characters on screen. They literally seemed to pride themselves on who could be more pathetically dysfunctional, and I came to slightly resent this group of suffering servants more than I was able to empathize with them.
What makes all of this so mystifying is that the director, John Cameron Mitchell, is the same person who brought us the outrageously enjoyable musical about a transgender man's sex change gone bad in "Hedwig and the Angry Itch" (2001). "Hedwig" defied the normal constraints of conventional movie making by any standard, which makes Mr. Mitchell's monochromatic portrait of grief in "Rabbit Hole" so difficult to understand.
Further handicapping Mr. Mitchell's film was the almost total absence of humor. There was one marvelous moment where Eckhart smoked some pot with another grieving mother before attending a group therapy session, only to subsequently collapse in laughter at the most inopportune moments when a parent was describing the magnitude of his personal loss. It left you wishing that there had been more of these irreverent moments, and you could only imagine the provocative movie this film could have been.
But in the end, "Rabbit Hole" amounted to little more than an unfortunately pompous film about a very serious subject. Much like the disappointing "Doubt" (2008) that also failed to live up to expectations, "Rabbit Hole" proved to be a provocative stage play that failed to translate in any meaningful fashion to the screen.