John Cameron Mitchell’s film adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s award-winning 2007 play, Rabbit Hole, is far from the “grief porn” you would expect in the story of two parents mourning the sudden death of their only son. The film is actually rather funny, a trait that strikes you first with some discomfort, until you realize that it’s all part of the plan. At the film’s premiere last week, at New York’s Paris Theater, some audience members visibly groaned when the crowd erupted at awkward moments of comedy. Yet these jokes are actually quite welcome; who doesn’t seek a laugh when faced with the potential of depressing subject matter? But, at what price? Does the shift in tone come at the expense of the story’s ability to get under our skin? Perhaps, because for a film pondering deep concepts, it can be a little shallow. While it’s not “grief porn,” the film does come across as a bit slight. These are some important subjects (death, family, pain) but the film ultimately lacks depth. In other words, Rabbit Hole is a middle-of-the-road domestic drama, where strong performances and noble direction don’t compensate for a story that was probably better suited for the stage.
The individual parts are greater than the sum. John Cameron Mitchell, directing his first mainstream film after the underground visual explosions Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, proves that he can handle subtle drama. The delicate grain between the despair and the absurd, is masterfully managed by Mitchell. Similar things, of course, should be said about the performances by Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest. Lionsgate acquired Rabbit Hole immediately after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and fast-tracked it for a December release. For the performances alone, this awards-focused release makes a ton of sense. And, for the performances alone, you should see Rabbit Hole once it opens in your city. I promise that it’s funnier than you think, but the humor comes at a price. For a story so devastating, you’d expect the film to have greater impact without any gratuitous grief.