The outlandish inventiveness of John Cameron Mitchell's previous films are barely discernible in "Rabbit Hole," a relatively tame but nonetheless admirable drama sustained by convincing performances and steady direction. Compared to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "Shortbus," the aims of "Rabbit Hole" are relatively minor. The story of a married couple coping with the death of their child, "Rabbit Hole" works just well enough to never fall apart.
Adapted from David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the movie follows Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), whose toddler died several months earlier in a traffic accident. Stuck in a cycle of ineffective group therapy and the specter of grief hanging over their joint domestic life, they constantly struggle to pick up the pieces. While Howie encourages their therapy attendance and suggests they have a new child, Becca lurks in the shadow of their loss. "I didn't know there was a cut-off date," she snaps when Howie urges her to move on.
Building on her uncomfortable presence in "Margot at the Wedding," Kidman continues her success with making difficult characters into figures of sympathy. She's both snarky and morbidly pessimistic, absorbing the bad vibes in her life rather than trying to cope with them. She balks at the sincere attempts by her mother (Dianne Weist, in a small but equally fine-tuned role) to draw parallels with her own son's death from a drug overdose. Becca's individualistic stance makes her a hot-wire presence, and the character most likely to crack. At a group therapy session, she lashes out to comic effect when a fellow bereaved parent rationalizes his child's death by explaining that "God needed another angel." Rolling her eyes, she shoots back, "Then why didn't he just make one?"
Eckhart operates on a level of comparative understatement: Howie always intends to become the voice of reason while masking his sadness. When his relentless optimism eventually turns sour, Eckhart makes the man's dwindling stamina lurk on the brink of a breakdown. Together, the actors' uncertain chemistry ekes tension out of the possibility that their marriage could fall apart at any moment. The plot establishes a series of problematic situations, but Mitchell never takes the twists to the next level of dramatic conflict. It's a solidly underwhelming experience.
Adhering to realism when a melodramatic route would offer the easy solution, "Rabbit Hole" feels persistently credible even when things get complicated. Becca secretly finds solace in meetings with the disillusioned teen (Miles Teller) whose actions behind the wheel led to her son's death. Howie, meanwhile, finds himself drawn into an ambiguous relationship with a fellow group therapy member (Sandra Oh). Comprising the bulk of the story, these scenes allow the tightly assembled cast to act circles around each other and little else.
Where movies with delusions of grandeur would aim for a sappy climax, "Rabbit Hole" hugs the ground. Mitchell only turns up the volume for a confrontational screaming match between the couple, the kind of angry throwdown that can prove a challenge for any two actors. Fortunately, they handle it with incredible dexterity, ably avoiding the danger of sounding shrill. To his credit, Mitchell works his way around the pratfalls of extreme sentimentalism. The sobbing is kept to a minimum, with nobody delivering a tell-all monologue in the concluding scenes. Despite his Broadway pedigree, Mitchell nimbly dodges a stagey approach. The cumulative impact "Rabbit Hole" is merely surface-deep, but the movie still inhabits fertile ground.
criticWIRE Grade: B+
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. "Rabbit Hole" hits select cinemas this Friday, December 17.