Actually, the story is not really about Paul (Ruffalo); it is about Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their two kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Joni and Laser are half-siblings, with Nic having carried Jules in the womb and Jules having Laser, with both kids sharing the same sperm-donor father. Life is pretty good for their family --- the kids seem pretty well-adjusted and they have a pretty sweet home in California --- but there are two problems. The first and most obvious is Joni preparing to leave for college in a few weeks. The other problem is the stagnant relationship between Nic and Jules; they are becoming a bickering old couple and decades-long problems are starting to make their way into everyday arguments.
At the urging of her brother, Joni contacts the sperm bank to contact their sperm daddy. Being a pretty laid-back quasi-hippie, Paul is agrees to meet the kids. Pretty soon, they are spending more and more time together, which adds more friction to Nic and Jules' relationship; since they are (not surprisingly) very liberal parents, they theoretically support the kids meeting their bio-dad, but in practice he's an unexpected monkey wrench in their last few weeks with Joni.
While considered a comedy, I would argue that this is a drama that gets some humor out of intentionally awkward scenes. So don't walk into this expecting a lot of laughs. The film, co-written by director Lisa Cholodenko, seems to cherish real-life moments that tend to make me cringe. People without good singing voices singing Joni Mitchell at the dinner table? Check. A teenage boy making the idiotic decision to rummage through his parents' bedroom for some pot to smoke and instead finds sex toys and porn? And then he decides to watch the porn? Great job, kid, you're scarred for life and it's your own damn fault. Whatever the situation, it is generally pretty awkward and uncomfortable. And how does a progressive gay couple give their son the most redneck name in the world? Laser? Seriously? Ten bucks says his middle name is "Tag."
The acting is the film's strong point. Mark Ruffalo can play a believable California stoner in his sleep and, while this part was kind of a retread for him, this reminded me that he can actually be a pretty endearing actor to watch. Julianne Moore was also good as the similarly unfocused Jules; I thought she captured the confusion of love and passion well. I was expecting a little more from Annette Bening, given all the accolades she has gotten for this movie. She was fine as the uptight parent and the condescending lover, but I didn't see this part as anything spectacular. All three gave subdued, realistic performances. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson were good too, but neither really has a moment where they really shine as performers.
I am beyond thankful that this movie treated Jules and Nic as a couple and not a gay couple. There were no speeches about how theirs might be a different kind of family, but a family nonetheless. There was no homophobia in the movie. The kids are, indeed, mostly all right. The cliche Lifetime movie plots are nowhere to be found in this film.
So, what are we left with? This is a movie about a couple that has hit a rocky patch in their relationship. Unfortunately, I didn't buy Nic and Jules as a couple. I get it, they're not at their most lovey-dovey right now, and opposites attract and all that, but I didn't see much chemistry between the lead actresses. Individually, their performances were fine, but together I was unimpressed. I feel like a jerk suggesting this, but I think the most noteworthy thing about this movie is that it treated homosexual characters like people, instead of as stereotypes. As such, this movie seems more timely than actually good to me. I wanted to like this movie more, but Nic was an unappreciative bitch and Jules chose to rebel in the least convenient way possible. I sympathize with their situation, but without seeing more of what makes them supposedly work as a couple, I was never invested in seeing them save their marriage. And that means that this story never quite fulfilled the promise that its acting made.
***UPDATE 2/24/11***After I posted this, I realized that I had forgotten to mention the conclusion of the story. One of the strengths of this movie is its realism. Even if you don't care about the characters (like me), the story itself is very believable --- and that's nice to see, coming from a concept that could have been a Farrelly Brothers movie (just a guess at their title: Sperm Daddy). Yes, the conclusion to Paul's part in the story was pretty low-key, but it felt right. The same goes for end of Jules and Nic's story. Some questions are left unanswered, sure, but that's okay in a movie that is trying to feel like real life. Now, if only they had convinced me that Nic and Jules were a good couple, and this movie would have been pretty good.