Quirky comedy was the original calling card for playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who proved himself adept at looking at life through an askew lens in the late '90s and early 2000s. In plays like Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo and Wonder of the World, he became known as the rightful heir to the comedy of Christopher Durang (who was one of his instructors at Juilliard). Those aforementioned plays exhibited an original theatrical voice with a skill for the absurd.
But wouldn't you know it? His first time to be taken seriously as an artist was with his drama Rabbit Hole, which ran for a few months on Broadway in 2006, earning the Pulitzer Prize and a Best Play Tony nomination (it lost to The History Boys). Since then, he's done lyrics for High Fidelity and Shrek the Musical, and will return to Broadway in March with his play Good People, starring Frances McDormand, Estelle Parsons and Tate Donovan.
It's no secret that in both Hollywood and New York, well-done comedy is appreciated, but drama gets all the respect—not to mention trophies.
And so it goes with the film version of Rabbit Hole, which is earning nominations for Nicole Kidman (in the role of a grieving mother that earned Cynthia Nixon a Tony on Broadway) and even making some year-end best-of lists. Expect it to settle for also-rans, though. The film, directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, and creator of the brilliant Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he also directed and starred in a less-successful film version), has some touching moments. But ultimately it isn't nearly as powerful as the play.
Lindsay-Abaire has smartly adapted the screenplay, and opens up the story nicely for film. Onstage, it's just five characters: Upper-middle-class married couple Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), whose four-year-old son was struck by a car a few months before; Becca's mom Nat (Diane Wiest), who has also dealt with the loss of a child; Becca's free-spirit sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard); and Jason (Miles Teller), the teenager who was driving the car that hit the toddler.
On film, as is often necessary in stage-to-screen adaptations, other characters are seen, including Izzy's boyfriend Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito), Howie's coworker and squash partner Rick (Jon Tenney), and Gaby (a lovely performance by Sandra Oh), a woman in Becca and Howie's grieving parents support group. Like the story's main couple, Gaby and her husband are struggling to stay together after their tragedy, even though it was eight years prior. Howie, who's trying to hold on to his marriage and help Becca work through the grief while dealing in his own way, finds a connection with Gaby.
Even in the play, it's apparent that Lindsay-Abaire knows how to temper the heavy drama with some humor, mainly in the character of Izzy (although Blanchard plays it down), and in the mother (Wiest is amazing as always). In the film, more attempts to lighten things up are made, such as an awkward scene in which Howie, having agreed with Becca that they should sell their house, shows his son's room, unchanged since the death, to potential buyers with their own young child.
There are a few updates in the present-set work. In the play, for instance, Howie watches home videos of his son on the TV; but in 2010, of course, he has them on his smart phone. The playwright also sustains one of the plot twists better in the film, with Becca finding herself needing to know Jason better.
That thread, the relationship between Becca and Jason, is what keeps both the play and the movie from sinking in maudlin waters, which is hard to do in a work about grief, especially when a child's death is concerned. On film, it's in these scenes where Kidman does her best work, as if Teller brings out something in her. She typically handles ice-queen roles well, perhaps because of that porcelain skin and threatening beauty. In playing a woman who was probably already chilly, but is even more so after the death—added with her disbelief in a god, especially after what happened—Kidman is effective. In one of the big cathartic scenes, which is more successful on stage, Kidman lets it loose.
Eckhart excels at playing smug assholes, but with Howie, who has his own grieving to do, he proves he can do sensitive. Everyone grieves in different ways, and to many, men aren't supposed to show weakness, even when nothing else could be expected. Eckhart balances strength and vulnerability in his crumbling world convincingly.
To director Mitchell's credit, the movie, like the play, avoids cheap ploys to wring tears from the audience. But even without the typical filmic device of music to ramp up sentiment, the pauses and reflective moments feel empty in the movie, and the drab visuals of Becca and Howie's suburban world don't help.
Like the film version of another award-winning play, Proof, which also used death to deal with familial relationships, Rabbit Hole loses power in the translation.
◊ Rabbit Hole, which is rated PG-13 and runs 91 minutes, opens Christmas Day at the Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano. Expect it to expand to more theaters in the coming weeks, and as awards season goes on.