Thursday, January 13, 2011

Much to admire about 'Rabbit Hole'

Rabbit Hole has some great moments, but never springs to full heartbreaking life.

Rabbit Hole, director John Cameron Mitchell’s big-screen adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-wining 2007 play, is tasteful, unsentimental and often beautifully written.

That’s saying something because the screenplay – also by Lindsay-Abaire -- deals with a subject that easily could have devolved into hand-wringing melodrama: a New York couple attempts to cope with the death of their 4-year-old son.

We meet Howie and Becca – played by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman -- eight months after their son Danny’s death. I won’t say what happened to Danny because Mitchell plays the movie’s emotional cards slowly and wisely, which should come as a relief to anyone who fears that Rabbit Hole will deliver an emotional clobbering.

Tension arises from the different ways in which Howie and Becca attempt to deal with their son's death. Howie watches a cherished video of his son on his smart phone. It helps him remember happier times. Howie’s untroubled by physical reminders of his son’s existence – drawings pasted to the refrigerator, for example. He seems to treasure them.

Becca, on the other hand, hardly can abide the residual paraphernalia of her son’s lost life. She’s carrying the departed Danny in her head, and it’s all she can do to move on.

Of course, both Howie and Becca attempt to maintain a normal facade in the face of unspeakable tragedy. They put up a brave middle-class front. Their house is neat. Howie seems to be functioning well enough at work. He’s liable to return home in the evening and find Becca puttering over dinner.

Kidman, nearly unrecognizable in the movie’s early scenes, steers clear of any suggestion of glamour, but her portrayal of the sometimes icy Becca not only holds her character’s emotions in check, but also keeps us at bay, and, I think, limits Rabbit Hole’s ability to crack open our hearts. It’s almost as if Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire have studied the mathematics of grief and allowed their calculations to inform the movie’s structure and all of its various subplots.

Becca’s younger sister (Tammy Blanchard) is involved in a relationship and recently has become pregnant. Both Becca and Howie attend a support group where Howie meets Gaby (Sandra Oh), a woman whose grieving style may be closer to his than Becca’s. Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) takes comfort in religion. She also has dealt with the death of a child, an adult son who succumbed to drugs.

In what may be the movie’s best scene, Wiest and Kidman talk about the way grief never ends, but morphs into something easily recalled and somehow bearable: The awful weight of it lessens with the passage of time.

The relationship between Becca and a high school student (no, it’s not at all kinky or sexual) begins in mystery, but eventually assumes an unsatisfying air of contrivance.

Rabbit Hole certainly has its moments. We’re watching a couple of decent people who must learn how to continue living in the face of the unthinkable, but I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that I was witness to a very good rehearsal of material that had yet to spring fully to life and which generally left me on the outside looking in.

Put another way: I don’t believe that Mitchell has found a way to bring Rabbit Hole from the stage to the screen with all its power intact.

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