I'd Rather Live Next Door to Ronnie
The press conference held after the New York Film Festival's Little Children screening included informally dressed director/co-screenwriter/-producer and former actor Todd Field, source novelist/co-writer Tom Perrotta, Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and Noah Emmerich. Amidst much kidding, there was talk of the family and one’s children, of casting and actors’ building up backstories for their characters or purposely not doing so, and of narrational voice on the printed page as opposed to screen adaptation. “So seamlessly” was repeated by several of the participants, referring to the film’s dialogue, situation, and outside narration spoken alongside representational actions.
Overall, however, the work is not successful in reconciling the latter two. The director admitted being attracted most by the characters of the novel read in galley before 2004 publication. He and the novelist re-imagined the book, collaborating as “two writers with such distinct voices and sensibilities.” From that book, “Tom’s voice, very sharp, very funny, also appropriately kind,” became more openly laugh-inducing in the film. Most consecutive in opening and closing minutes, with brief glib incursions in the hundred thirty minutes’ midsection, Will Lyman’s wry third-person omniscient baritone introduces, explains, analyzes -- e.g., Brad Adamson’s (Wilson) mother’s death or the unintentional stupid hurt in reassuring words to lover Sarah Pierce (Winslet) -- but has the effect of trivializing what deserves serious treatment.
While no one would demand the skilled moral deflation of an arch Jane Austen or the adroit intrusive Victorian authors, such a gulf between tone and content unfortunately harks back to some movies of the 1990s and a handful of recent ones that also make frivolous hay with grave social issues.
As so often, upscale suburbia -- East Wyndam, MA -- where, thankfully without Hollywood’s standard humorous-peccadillo substance abuse, adults on the cusp of midlife crises fall willy-nilly into workaholism, adultery, psychoses and kinky cybersex. Intended to be sympathetic, they are shallow, instead, unredeemed by their cuddly-but-bratty-when-need-be three-year-olds (Ty Simpkins and Sadie Goldstein, as Aaron Adamson and Lucy Pierce). Not badly done so much as just lacking life’s complexity and unpredictability, these protagonists fade when compared with Shakespeare’s visually referenced “love is as a fever” or with Emma Bovary -- dissected at a ladies’ book-discussion group which ABD, all-but-doctoral-dissertation, lit. major Sarah is dragged to -- and, most notably and inside the plot itself, with pitiful Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley). Physically and psychically scarred and recently released from prison for exposing himself to a minor, he and his beloved mother (Phyllis Somerville) are subjected to the merciless anti-perv campaign of equally troubled ex-policeman Larry Hedges (Emmerich).
Second wife of a “not ‘advertising’ but ‘branding’” executive (Gregg Edelman) who ignores her for the online allure of Slutty Kay, dissatisfied Sarah is uncomfortable walking her daughter to the local kiddie park, until she strikes up with frustrated Brad, parenting his own young one. The other catty mothers’ dream “Prom King,” he has twice failed the state bar exam and lives under the breadwinning thumb of documentarian “knockout with great breasts” wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), with jester-capped Aaron an emotional and literal spooning-board between them. Once anti-Flaubert’s heroine, Sarah has come round to viewing that unhappy woman as “refusing to accept a life of unhappiness,” so it can hardly be a surprise when she and Brad fall into friendship, into meeting with their kids at the municipal pool, and, if not at first into bed, then into the same activity on top of a washing-room sink.
While emasculating wife and mother-in-law would keep him grinding for another lawyer’s exam, recharged Sarah cheerleads her hunk on from skateboard watching to manly participation quarterbacking in absurdly out-of-place sarcastic episodes of macho organized touch football. Afternoon trysts turn into a few days away together, covered by lies, but new joy cannot go unresolved nor friends and spouses be forever fooled. With metaphorically raised eyebrows, in case the dinner party acting is missed, the all-knowing voice explains Kathy’s awakening, and, in any case, there is the heart’s problem with innocent children.
Grown-ups cannot change the past, but narrator-God assures us that we can determine the future, a filmic take on “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” “Oddly uplifting,” as Winslet later put it in person, an alternative to Wilson’s comment on American and, presumably, British expectations of college, marriage and kids. “Always a misguided nice guy, actually” ( said Emmerich), even Larry is regenerated. Small comfort left to Ronnie, the sad presence “black as hell, dark as night” relegated to eternal pain, “the troll under the bridge, or Beowulf’s Grendel,” ironically the most deeply human of them all.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated “R” by MPAA.)