Rabbit Hole — a mature, nuanced study of grief and recovery adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play — is engaging, emotionally tricky, pseudo-profound, and entirely disposable. In other words, it's high-quality, unmemorable Oscar bait, a film that's both satisfying and infuriating because it stays tastefully within its self-imposed limits.
The film covers a few weeks in the life of Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), a married couple who have survived a devastating family tragedy. Since the accidental death of their young son, Becca and Howie have tiptoed carefully through their everyday routines and procedures (dinner, yard work, brief conversations with friends), trying hard not to disrupt the fragile peace they've established. These early scenes inside Beca and Howie's big, rustic suburban home almost feel like the beginning of an upper-class ghost story, except that the ghost only manifests itself in memories, lunch bags, and toys that threaten to tear them apart. There are other complications, notably when Becca strikes up a relationship with the teenage boy who hit their son with his car, but for the most part the film's focus is on this couple's irrevocably altered family dynamic.
As expected, the acting here is exceptional — complex and mature in the way that movies released in December and January often are. Kidman's brittleness and ethereality express her character's distressed intelligence very well; Becca pays too much attention to what people say and can't help but offer them well-meaning, casually cutting advice. When her less successful kid sister refuses to accept some baby clothes, saying, "It's not about the money," Becca immediately replies, "But it should be." The scenes between Becca and her mother (Dianne Wiest, also good), who is also grieving the loss of a child, are authentic in their bitterness and their tenderness.
As Howie, Eckhart has a less interesting role, but he's tossed a chest-pounding dramatic speech or two to tide him over. And as Jason, the teenager Becca meets, Miles Teller shows the world how a real adolescent looks and behaves. He's simultaneously tentative, tender, diffident, and unconsciously callous when he tells Becca, "I just wish I'd driven down a different block that day."
Oddly, there's comic potential in the scenes that feature a support group of parents who've lost their children, and there's another potentially funny and painful encounter when Howie lingers at an open house, but neither Lindsay-Abaire nor director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) quite know which notes to strike during such complex scenes.
That kind of hesitancy and caution are typical of filmed plays, which Rabbit Hole is to its core. The story is told through dialogue and performance rather than sound and image, and Mitchell only uses the camera to show us the people moving the show along. With the exception of a single slow-motion shot that catches Kidman's cropped face as it drifts out of the frame, the imagery never adds anything to the story or screenplay. It's a middlebrow triumph that needs some skillful framing, lighting, spacing, shot selection — something cinematic — to catapult it into rougher and more expressive emotional terrain.
Opening Friday, January 14th