Or more properly, the man of the year is Paul, the character Mark Rufalo plays in the The Kids Are All Right, the perceptive, wise, winning new film co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. The reason is simple: there hasn’t been a male character like Paul in the movies in, like, forever.
The Kids Are All Right is about a long-married lesbian couple, Nic and Jules, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and their two teenage children, Joni, played by Mia Wasikowska, who is about to head off to college, and Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson, who is basically a fine young man who has some questions. Joni and Laser are half-sibs: one was born of Nic, the other of Jules, but both were the result of an anonymous contribution made at a sperm bank. Laser persuades his sister to find out the identity of the donor, who turns out to be the laid-back hipster Paul.
For a couple of decades now, Hollywood has not known what to do with male sexual energy. Time and again, it is sublimated, repressed, channeled, tamed, punished, mocked, ignored, or agonized over. In this movie, it is celebrated. Paul is the life-giver, even apart from his relationship to Laser and Joni. He has a farm on which he brings life from the ground; he is an entrepreneur who owns a restaurant where he feeds people. Right from the moment we meet him we are shown that women find him attractive and enjoy him as a lover. As the movie progresses, we see him in other roles: he is the one who coaxes a song from the lips of the taut, controlling Nic (and in Joni Mitchell’s Blue, a perfect match of song and the character’s better, largely forgotten self); who revives passion and confidence in the neglected and underappreciated Jules; who encourages the simmering Joni to assert herself, even as he casts a fatherly cloak (or, literally, a hat) of protection over her; and who provides a model of cool masculinity for the searching Laser, who amid his female-surrounded surroundings, has latched onto a highly inappropriate role model for guidance. It is true that Paul is, as Nic correctly observes, “a bit full of himself” ( a fairly forgivable fault in the cock of the walk) and is no intellectual. But he is vibrant, interesting, considerate and ultimately decent. And never in the film is he required to punch anyone or pull a gun.
He is, unfortunately, disruptive. That is, of course, the ironic underside of creativity. The life-giver is the destroyer, and Paul instigates a disorderly rebelliousness in Joni and almost breaks up Nic and Jules’ stable marriage. This near-demolition is not entirely of Paul’s making; if there weren’t already tinder, Paul probably wouldn’t have been able to start a blaze. Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg do a fair and unsentimental job of showing the problems that gradually emerge within a marriage and a family–Julianne Moore’s splendid speech near the end of the film is a description both unsparing and generous–and there is little wonder that the freedom offered by the Unattached Male is such a threat to a way of life that demands such discipline and sacrifice. What’s fascinating is that the film doesn’t give us a Paul who is selfish and self-absorbed; as the movie progresses, he begins to conclude that despite the creativity he offers and the joy he both gives and takes, his greater fulfillment awaits his entrance into the deeper commitment of marriage and family. That would leave him with a big question–can he remain the man he is in an institution that requires him to give so much of himself away? But that’s a topic for a different movie. Right now, at a moment when an eminent magazine like The Atlantic can publish with a straight face a bit of silly provocation called “The End of Men’‘, The Kids Are All Right gives us the great gift of Paul, the very model of modern masculinity.