Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate, PG-13)

If you’d like to wallow in the exquisite suffering of the upper middle classes for 90 minutes this might be just the film for you.



One problem in reviewing Rabbit Hole is that its subject matter—a couple’s grief after the accidental death of their child—inspires an almost religious response in a surprising number of people. Criticism of the film is thus taken as a personal attack on their belief system and prompts the charge that you just don’t get it because you haven’t lost a child/don’t have children/haven’t dedicated your life to procreation/ plug in your favorite reason here. To which I say that any movie that only communicates to people whose experience is similar to that of its characters is a very poor specimen of the cinematic art. My parents never abused me but I “got” Precious just fine, I’m not Korean but I had no problem appreciating Mother. I have exactly zero experience with the meth trade but I picked Winter’s Bone as the best picture of the year.

The problem I have with Rabbit Hole is that, unlike the three films I just named, it assumes what it should show. The death of a child is a terrible event, but we already know that. What a film can add to our knowledge is an exploration of how different characters react to that event, hopefully with some new insights or at least a memorable portrayal or two. At these tasks Rabbit Hole fails almost entirely, giving us instead a couple apparently so stultified by their grief that they’re hardly even present in their own lives. What’s left is an apparent directive to admire these people (about which we know surprisingly little, even after 90 minutes in their company) simply because of what we are told happened to them.

The setup goes as follows: Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) were the golden couple of the suburbs, beautiful, well-off and devoted to their charming son Danny. Becca even gave up her job at Sotheby’s (!) to be a stay-at-home Mom. Then one day their parental vigilance lapses, and Danny runs into the street and is killed by a car driven by the teenaged Jason (Miles Teller) who, as near as I can tell, did nothing wrong. All this happens long before the film opens and what we see is a couple so preoccupied with their grief that they’ve ceased to function both as individuals and as a unit.

If you’d like to wallow in the exquisite suffering of the upper middle classes for 90 minutes this might be just the film for you. One word of warning: when they’re not suffering in silence they’re acting out in inappropriate ways. Becca gets into a game of grief one-upmanship with her mother (Dianne Wiest) and in the film’s most bizarre incident picks a fight with and strikes another woman in the supermarket (the kind of thing that would get someone with a darker complexion arrested). Meanwhile Howie contemplates an affair and botches a potential sale of their home (they’ve decided it might be easier to move on by changing location) by babbling on about his dead son. That the film succeeds on any level at all is a credit primarily to Nicole Kidman’s embrace of the role that won Cynthia Nixon a Tony Award.

Because, you see, Rabbit Hole started life as a play that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 (not without controversy, but that’s a story for another day). The playwright David Lindsay-Abaire adapted it for the film and while he did a reasonable job of opening it up (as they say) and adding characters, the material is really not suitable for film. It’s an actor’s vehicle that thrives on stage thanks to the intimate relationship between cast and audience, a connection that simply can’t be duplicated on the screen. In addition, writing effectively for the stage and for the screen are two different arts, and Rabbit Hole has not effectively made the transition to its new medium.

The incidents planted in the script to show you how Becca and Howie are feeling which worked so well on stage seem to come out of left field in the film, while much of the humor in the stage production has been lost in the transition to screen. In particular the less-refined characters of Becca’s mother Nat and sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) (whose presence suggest that Becca has risen above her origins and is insecure about that fact) have been toned down for the film, leaving us even more locked in Becca and Nat’s unresolved grief. That’s a very fatiguing place to be. | Sarah Boslaugh

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