Little Children (2006)

*. Wow. So they updated Madame Bovary by setting it in an affluent Boston suburb filled with bored yuppies, and gave it a happy ending? That’s just . . . wow.
*. I was enjoying it. Some things I was enjoying a lot. And then that ending. I can’t think of a recent movie that disappointed me more in its final ten minutes. What were they thinking? I mean, the novel by Tom Perrotta ends with an ironic note about “a love story with a happy ending,” but it’s nothing like what we get here.
*. I’ll get back to all this. But to start on a more positive note, what I enjoyed here were the subtle parts. I liked what went unsaid, the silences, the passive microcruelties. I liked not knowing what it was that passed between Lucy and the babysitter that turned the babysitter against Sarah (a scene not in the novel, which made me think something in the script had been cut). I loved the point in the dinner scene when Kathy realizes that Sarah and Brad have been having an affair just in the way Sarah responds to his not having told her (Sarah) that he knew Larry. I call such epiphanies “Henry James moments,” because his fiction is full of them. They’re a beautiful thing. And I didn’t even mind the narrator underlining it by telling us that “sexual tension is an elusive thing, but Kathy had a pretty good radar for it.” I’d prefer showing rather than telling, and I also think it’s weird it should come as such a revelation here since Kathy has set up the dinner to test her suspicions, but I’ll let that go just to enjoy the look on Jennifer Connelly’s face. A fine actress, put to no good use in the rest of the film.

*. But what happens next wrecks it. Why does Kathy have to go under the table to see if Brad and Sarah are playing footsie? This is silly, and so unnecessary. We’ve seen the look on Kathy’s face. We know she knows. The narrator has told us. So why make it all ridiculous? And then why show Kathy’s amazement at Sarah’s painted toenails without any explanation of what this means? (In the novel we’re told that “You’d have to be crazy to wear nail polish like that, or so deeply in love that you were beyond caring.”)
*. Too much of the film is like this. Instead of being subtle it is obvious and overstated. Characters become caricatures. The trio of repressed, judgmental mommies at the park. The gang of middle-aged, wannabe-jock cops playing night football.
*. A good example of what I mean by obvious and overstated is Ronnie’s meltdown. There he is, grieving the loss of his mother, surrounded by shelves of china dolls and clocks. And you’re thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if he somehow held it all in and didn’t break all this stuff?” But the more realistic part of your brain is saying, “Just  hurry up and smash it to hell already. That’s what it’s there for. We’re waiting.” And then he does. And he screams. And it’s all so totally unnecessary. Haley was doing such a great job in that part, couldn’t Todd Field have let him play it on his own?

*. Another example: Could Sarah have twigged to her husband’s Internet-porn fixation in a little less dramatic a way? Just seeing what he had on his computer and the used tissues might have been enough.
*. I also thought Sarah and Brad fell together too obviously. His finding the photo she’s kept of him that she’s stuck into a book, marking a page with a yearning line of poetry that’s been underlined, wasn’t very subtle. And can a woman ever innocently ask a man to rub suntan lotion on her? I don’t think so.

*. So these guys are in a touch football league but are playing full tackle, and with no pads. And they all seem to be in their thirties and forties (or older). No. This is crazy. In the book we’re told that they only call it “touch football” for insurance purposes. Which is a subterfuge that would only last until the first trip to the hospital. Which would, in turn, be about five minutes after kick-off. Aspirin and Jack Daniels won’t make men that age feel better.
*. In Perrotta’s novel Ronnie is an overweight, balding mama’s boy. Do you know who else fit that description? Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s Psycho. On screen, Norman was transformed into the lithe Anthony Perkins, while Ronnie becomes a very fit looking Jackie Earl Haley. Hollywood can’t abide chubby men, even as villainous losers.
*. Oh boy, another English Lit grad who is portrayed as being basically good for nothing and a head case to boot. We get it already. Stop doing this to us.
*. Still, despite all this, I was playing along. Things seemed to be working. And then there’s this ending.
*. Are we really supposed to buy that Brad is now going to be reconciled with Kathy? Won’t she know from the bag he packed that he was making a run for freedom? Are we supposed to feel good that Sarah has now realized she has to be a better, more responsible mother? Has Larry redeemed himself by apologizing to Ronnie and driving him to the hospital? I feel like these should be rhetorical questions, but the film does nothing to even suggest that they are not to be seriously entertained.
*. Worst of all, we see Ronnie castrate himself: an act that fulfills the worst of society’s vindictive demands while at the same time leaving their hands clean. No one is to blame, but (a particularly harsh, conservative form of) justice has been served. And castration! For someone who had only been convicted of exposing himself! In the book there is no castration, and I had to wonder at the thinking behind such a drastic change, especially as, in the book, he is not just a perv but a child killer. The community’s outrage here makes no sense.

*. I wonder if it’s the case that (a) Americans can’t do subtle domestic drama well any more, or (b) Hollywood just isn’t interested. Little Children reminded me of American Beauty, another movie that had a lot going for it but suffered for being so damned heavy-handed: the same obviousness and falling back into caricature.
*. The web of complex and compromised morality is well-handled, with everyone, including (or is that especially?) Ronnie’s mom, being guilty of some significant failings. But in the end this complexity is all wiped away with a tidy flourish and Will Lyman’s utterly banal benediction: “You couldn’t change the past. But the future could be a different story. And it had to start somewhere.” That’s it? Tomorrow is another day? In the twenty-first century, this is what counts as a tragic vision of American life?

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