By Caryn James | James on Screens December 16, 2010 at 8:00AM
Every now and then, between splashy commercial misfires (Australia!) and arty little misfires (Fur) Nicole Kidman does something that proves she didn’t become a star entirely because of high-profile marriages, that she’s more than a walking, talking, cautionary tale about Botox. She really can act, and she is amazingly subtle, restrained and moving in Rabbit Hole, her best work since The Hours. It’s a role that plays to her strength: a woman so brittle it seems as if a slight wind would make her snap.
The story is enough to cause audiences, not to mention move marketers, to flee in horror: a couple tries to preserve their marriage after their 4-year-old son has died in an accident. Happy Holidays to you, too. And the film’s too-precious title isn’t promising, even if David Lindsay-Abaire did win a Pulitzer for the play it’s based on. But the film draws you in without dragging you down, thanks to Kidman as Becca, and Aaron Eckhart as her husband, Howie. Eckhart is just as amazing but destined to be unfairly overshadowed -- as in, she was nominated for a SAG award today, he wasn’t.
These characters are so determined to survive that they carry you along, but they’re facing grief in ways that pull them in different directions. Howie needs his grieving-parents’ support group; Becca loses patience with it and stomps out. Howie needs to replay videos of their son, while Becca needs to, months after his death, take his drawings off the fridge and pack them away. Nothing startling there, except the performances, which convey the depth of loss without histrionics. Kidman is quietly still (not frozen!) , turned inward with pain. Howie, who feels he is losing his wife as well as their son, struggles to be patient and occasionally explodes with anger. Eckhart has never been better than in this modulated performance.
John Cameron Mitchell – yes, the director of outside-the-box films like Short Bus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- approaches the material with no-frills honesty. And there are two terrific smaller roles. Dianne Wiest is enlivening as Becca’s working class mother, trying to help and blurting out all the wrong things. Sandra Oh, as a mother in the support group, is touching when she needs to be and witty too. The screenplay tosses in enough humor to keep away the grimness, especially when Oh’s character and Howie get stoned and giggly in a school parking lot instead of sharing their grief at the meeting inside.
Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay, though – not perfect. Becca is obsessed with the teenaged boy whose car hit her son, and follows him around town. She doesn’t want retribution, she wants connection, a motive just as unbelievable and cliched as it sounds. But don’t let the small imperfections keep you away. Rabbit Hole won’t send you dancing out of the theater, but Mitchell, Kidman and Eckhart have created an enormously moving film that is, in the end, unexpectedly buoyant. It leaves you with hope for the characters, and might also restore your belief in Kidman’s talent, and in the future of improbable little movies.