In the tradition of Proof and Doubt, John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole is another attempt to translate a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play to Oscar gold. Of course, the first major stumbling block in such a cross-media venture is the simple reality that while films are a product of mass culture, plays are a product of Broadway culture: in other words, that of New York City. Much in the same sense that a "best-selling novel" might have only been read by a few hundred-thousand people, a "hit play"–such as David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole–might have only run for two months in one theater in one very specific geographical location, might have only been seen by a few thousand people and might have only been reviewed by a handful of New York drama critics. In this case it was, which seems to beg the question: what exactly makes this a viable candidate for what some humorless individuals might term a "prestige" film? Do a couple hundred members of the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League and the Pulitzer Prize Board curry just as much influence in the film world as, say, focus groups or the concept of nepotism?
Rabbit Hole tells the story of Howie and Becca Corbett (Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman), a couple whose four-year-old son Danny was tragically killed eight months previously by a teenaged driver, Jason (Miles Teller), who may or may not have been doing one mile per hour faster than the speed limit when the child ran in the path of his vehicle in search of a dog. The film attempts to address a wide array of philosophical questions surrounding the loss of a child: not only has Becca's mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) also lost a son–and, unlike her secular daughter finds comfort for her loss in "faith"–but Howie and Becca attend a support group for similarly afflicted couples where they meet pothead Gabby and her husband Rick (Sandra Oh and Jon Tenney), who have been attending the group for eight years–the revelation of which provides Becca with a chilling vision of things to come, prompting her to erase from her life every trace of Danny's existence, much to the chagrin of Howie, who finds comfort in those selfsame traces.
One of the first signs that Rabbit Hole has been clumsily adapted to the screen (by the playwright himself) is a brief scene in the film's opening minutes in which Howie suggests to Becca that they see "the Stoppard play." The inter-textuality of the line is lost in the stage-to-screen translation; in a Broadway play, this bit of self-reflexivity might have evoked a little chuckle: the characters in the play are theater-goers and so the theater-goer is reminded that he or she is watching a play. Following this theater-y exchange is another in which Becca, who has to bail out her bar-fighter of a ne'er-do-well sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard who, in preparation for this role, clearly watched every film in history featuring a "ne'er-do-well sister") asks her why the other woman "accosted" her. This represents another common "problem" in stage-to-screen adaptations: the hermetic tendencies of playwrights such as Lindsay-Abaire–towards flowery, self-consciously poetic prose-dialogue and generally not bothering to write "how people talk"–simply do not work in the medium of film.
Furthermore, nearly every conversation in the film's first act is expository: a narrative necessity in a play beginning with a late point of action and consisting entirely of talking heads, though the cinematic equivalent of someone saying "do you know what I mean?" after every sentence. And if it wasn't already apparent to viewer that Nat is a woman of faith, she wears a large highly readable cross around her neck at all times. There is a dearth of fully-realized, relatable characters in this film: each is essentially a vessel for one very narrow philosophical stance: for example, when Howie and Becca inform that Gabby that Izzy has become pregnant, Gabby only addresses the supposedly happy news news as a potential obstacle to the couple: "that can be difficult." Nevertheless, most of the actors find some way to humanize their characters: Nicole Kidman, now looking like a six-foot porcelain doll, perfectly embodies the cold, disaffected Becca who eventually crumbles under the weight of her unfeeling facade when she, Howie and Jason finally initiate the "blame game." The only exceptions may be the aforementioned Blanchard's black sheep and Wiest's bible thumper: the latter trying a bit too hard to convey doddering.
Though Kidman will probably receive all of the acclaim, it is really Aaron Eckhart and Miles Teller who shine in their roles: the former, as a grieving parent-turned-abortive paramour to Sandra Oh's Gabby, the latter, as the deeply wounded Jason, whose every movement and gesture bears the trace of a having a life pinned on it. And one of the most perceptive and brilliantly-acted scenes in the film features a thoroughly weeded Howie and Gabby–without their respective spouses–attempting to stifle laughter as a man nonchalantly describes the pain of losing his daughter to leukemia as he stuffs a cookie into his face: the "joke" being that the man seems, in this moment, more consumed with the cookie than with his grief, and appears to Howie and Gabby to be merely playing a role, a role they eventually come to regard as pointless–this being their shared character arc: both realize that it is only natural for the pain to dissipate and for life to continue. And most touching is a scene in which Howie violently snaps at his unwieldy dog, only to collapse in tears and embrace the pet, whom he has conflated with his lost son: the dog's unwitting victim.
Director John Cameron Mitchell (known for the decidedly more trangressive cult film Hedwig and the Angry Inch and self-conscious attempt to create a cult film, Shortbus) has done his best to give Rabbit Hole a stylish ultra-fashionable look: the impeccably well-dressed Corbetts have one of the nicest kitchens I've ever seen. However, the flair for color which served him so well in the surrealistic Hedwig doesn't really work in such a bleak and lonely context. Also, the Corbetts' architonic sophistication and sartorial elegance are somewhat distracting: there's nothing in the story to suggest that these characters had to be well-heeled, so why are they? And why is Nicole Kidman so much taller and porcelaneous than her stumpy working class mother and sister? These questions will probably never be answered, but if we can forgive Mitchell these embroideries, as well as some of his film's dramaturgical fluffs, then we can regard Rabbit Hole as a fairly decent and slightly-more-perceptive-than-usual meditation on a difficult subject. (Extra points for staving off the inevitable "full on blubbering" scenes for the final stretch and keeping them on the short side.)