As the marketing budgets for movies about alien invasions, Nordic gods and talking cars grow exponentially bigger, they increasingly tend to define our notions of what cinema is or could be. This has resulted in a generation or two out there who see little reason to go to a movie about, well, people. The complaint one usually hears from this crowd about such films is that “nothing happens.”
Of course, this judgement is being passed down largely by dudes for whom saving the universe from evil alien robots counts as “something,” whereas the myriad emotions, questions, desires and struggles that make up our lives all add up to “nothing.” Yes, cinema can be about spectacular worlds of the imagination, but we should resist the notion — trumpeted by emotionally stunted fanboys and their panderers — that real life is not worth examining.
Just take a look at “Rabbit Hole,” the new film by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), which has Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a couple, Becca and Howie Corbett, whose marriage is falling apart due to their ongoing grief and guilt over the death of their child. Sounds like a real bummer, right? Well, yes and no. “Rabbit Hole” is an expansive film, full of sadness, but also warmth, humor, anger and — not least — a bit of wisdom.
Let’s face it: We will all lose someone we love sooner or later. Death is part of life, and when it happens, it’s all-consuming. Dealing with loss can throw you off track for weeks, months, years, with no clear way out. “Rabbit Hole” charts that journey into despair; if you’ve been there, you’ll find this film nothing short of cathartic, and if you haven’t, well, here’s a chance to exercise your empathy muscle.
What does the film get right? Much, like the friends who disappear after the death because they don’t know how to deal with broaching the subject, or the second-guessing and self-blame that plague the parents who lost their child. My own favorite moment was when some well-meaning person of faith blithely insists that a child’s death is “all part of God’s plan -he needed another angel,” and Becca just loses her cool. He’s God, right? Couldn’t he have just made another angel without killing a child?
The film also finds some moments of humor in the most uncomfortable situations: After deciding to sell their house, Howie spooks one prospective buyer by showing them his dead son’s bedroom and saying, “Sometimes it feels like he’s still here.” After a film’s worth of brief ups and long downs, “Rabbit Hole” comes to rest on a question Becca puts to her mom: “Does it get better?” Surprisingly, she gets an answer, and it’s a good one.
Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” is another film where the doubters will certainly wail, “Nothing happens!” In four seasonal chapters, we meet an aging but quite happily married couple called Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) who tend their garden allotment, have friends over for dinner, attend a funeral, and so on. As a year passes by, we get to observe the different paths people’s lives take: Gerri’s needy coworker Mary (Lesley Manville) is hitting a certain age, and desperate for a man; she has a crush on Tom and Gerri’s much younger son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who regards her as an auntie; Tom’s college friend Ken (Peter Wight), a divorced and a bitter alcoholic (his T-shirt reads “Less Thinking, More Drinking”), fancies Mary but to no avail.
It’s a sprawling, Robert Altman-esque film where the people you think are the leads turn out not to be, as other story strands come to the forefront. Like Altman, Leigh values characters over scripts; months of rehearsal stemming from a few seed ideas result in the story arising organically from the interplay of the actors. Leigh is generous in giving his cast quality screen time — sometimes a bit too much so — but you wind up viewing these people like old friends, except perhaps for Imelda Staunton, the saintly mother from “Vera Drake,” who plays a patient in counseling; she’s such a tightly wound ball of discontent she can only sputter, not speak.
Manville, in particular, excels in the sort of loosey-goosey female role for which Leigh has a soft spot. Wearing every passing emotion on the surface, she tracks Mary’s long and winding crack-up, while managing to make us like her, pity her, not want to be in the same room with her, and ultimately understand her. No doubt some will just find her annoying; that, perhaps, is the director pointing out something about yourself.
Old age ain’t no place for sissies, as Bette Davis famously put it, and “Another Year” is brutally clear on that point. The difference between one’s 50s or 60s and one’s 20s or 30s is that as you get older you have to lie in the bed you’ve made. As Gerri puts it, “Life isn’t always kind, is it?” The film’s as simple as that … Or is it?