Hare-line fracture

Rabbit Hole

Two people and loss: It’s a star vehicle. Also, Oscar bait.

Two people and loss: It’s a star vehicle. Also, Oscar bait.

Rated 3.0

Five years ago, director John Madden’s movie of David Auburn’s Proof offered a textbook example of how to bring a Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the screen, fully cinematic yet with the incisive intimacy of the stage. The new movie of Rabbit Hole (another Pulitzer Prize play, by David Lindsay-Abaire) is also a textbook example—of the pitfalls and how to fall into them. The two pictures would fuel a good compare-and-contrast essay; Proof was thoughtful and electrically challenging, while Rabbit Hole, though glossy, graced with a high-pedigree cast and decent enough, diminishes its near-sublime text to something more like a two-hanky weeper on the Lifetime channel.

I didn’t expect this, since Lindsay-Abaire himself wrote the screenplay for director John Cameron Mitchell and producer-star Nicole Kidman. But in the process, the play’s virtues have become so diluted and diffused that I had to wonder: Was Lindsay-Abaire seduced into Hollywood star fawning, skewing his ensemble-oriented play into an overt vehicle centered on Kidman as a mother grieving for her dead son? Or did he simply not understand the strengths of his own play in the first place?

On stage, Rabbit Hole is a tightly focused five-character drama punctuated with sharp, surprising flashes of aching humor. Becca (Kidman’s role in the movie) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are a 30-something middle-class couple separated by a common loss: their 4-year-old son Danny, who chased the family dog into the street eight months earlier and was killed by a teenage driver, Jason (Miles Teller). Purely an accident, with no one to blame, one of those bad things that can happen to good people—but if anything, that heightens rather than eases the pain.

Completing the stage ensemble are Becca’s irresponsible but good-hearted sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), and their slightly overbearing mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest). In the movie, however, these two roles are trimmed into near irrelevance, elbowed into the background by the spotlight focused on Becca and Howie—or, more bluntly, on Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.

Here’s what David Lindsay-Abaire seems not to understand about his own play: It’s like an atom in which the five characters are electrons revolving around the missing nucleus that was Danny. Nobody’s to blame for the accident, but everybody feels guilty—Howie for getting the dog; Becca for not latching the gate; Izzy for making the phone call that drew Becca away from watching Danny; Jason for driving down the wrong street, maybe a mile over the speed limit; Nat because she can’t help thinking of her own lost son, dead under far different circumstances. Without their nucleus, these electrons wobble and flail in their orbits, by turns clutching at and repelling one another.

In the movie, Rabbit Hole’s symmetrical stage design is torn between the age-old pitfall of “opening up” a play and the Hollywood urge to focus on Kidman and Eckhart (who are, after all, the stars). Irrelevant characters intrude on the action. Viewers familiar with the play may be startled, as I was, to see so many names in the opening cast list, wondering where all these people fit in. Then the capper: “… and Sandra Oh.” Well now, Sandra Oh is always welcome, but what on Earth can there be for her to do in Rabbit Hole if she’s not playing Becca? The answer is she plays Gaby, an entirely new character inserted as a temptation, a harmless flirtation for Eckhart’s Howie. Gaby is an example of what a playwright acquaintance of mine once called “an arrow fired over the house”: irrelevant, unnecessary, intrusive.

The sky is full of such arrows, although one of them—Howie and Gaby, stoned on pot, giggling at the anger of another bereaved parent in their support group—at least preserves some of the humor of the play, at once raw nerved and cleansing. For much of the movie, the mournful grief of its stars is front and center, somber and relentless, buttered with the muted boo-hooing of Anton Sanko’s music. The movie orbits Becca and Howie instead of the lost Danny.

The actors carry themselves with such sincere professionalism that audiences may be lulled into thinking they’re seeing David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. They’re not.