Saturday, 20 November 2010


I.T. is back in Boston, more hommage to my contributions to Maxim Jakubowski's Following The Detectives, for by coincidence I followed the twenty-year old re-read of George V Higgins with the 39th of Robert B Parker's Spenser novels. Painted Ladies is the first to be published after the untimely death of Robert B Parker, and there is a lot that is familiar about it. Starting with the moment Spenser is hired, by the somewhat pompous art professor, Dr Ashton Pierce, to protect him as he delivers the ransom for a stolen painting, one of the eponymous females of the title. I'm still wondering who the other painted ones were. Now, apart from Spenser's having a bit of fun deflating his pomposity, which by now is a trope for the detective, the set-up is straight out of Raymond Chandler, though none the worse for that. The buy goes wrong, of course, and having failed his client, Spenser sets off to get some justice for him, and to redeem himself.

From there, the tale proceeds along equally familiar Spenserian lines, including an ambush escape that Spenser foils, once Pearl II has sniffed it out, using the same strategy he once used in another book, something Parker himself tells us before the Spenser anoraks out there flood the internet, or now indeed the afterworld, with complaints. He also avoids another killing through sheer chance, which seems to be stretching things. Spenser again gets to visit a college campus, to prove he's still attractive to coeds as much as anything else.

The story also relies on a few coincidences that ring false. Would one character's daughter would be having a class with another character's partner in fraud? Would dog-owners met randomly in the park really just happen to know the best art expert in the same field Spenser is investigating? I was so convinced that must be a set-up I was shocked when Susan Silverman got through the book without being kidnapped! It sometimes bends itself in service of its wisecrackings dialogue (would a Middlesex DA really be unaware that Spenser had killed two would-be assassins?). There is a very interesting villain, who sadly doesn't get enough of a part in the story, especially because his role becomes obvious fairly quickly. There are nice bits for the cops Healy, Quirk and Belson, who would have deserved a novel of their own one day.

What really makes this seem like by-the-numbers Spenser, however, are the dual romances. Yes, Pearl's Public Gardens flirtation with Otto from Central Park is nothing more than another Parker lesson in love. I know people often say 'love me, love my dog', and I might even be willing to do that. But when they tell each other that 'maybe we are the two most interesting people in the world' or 'you and I have something few people in the world are able to get,' you want to shout 'maybe you're not, and maybe more people in the world aren't so damn smug! So I really do hope that Spenser's last word really does not turn out to be 'Otto!'

Painted Ladies by Robert B Parker
Quercus £18.99 ISBN 9781849131312

Note: a slightly different version of this review will appear at Crime Time:

Friday, 19 November 2010


I picked up a copy of The Mandeville Talent in a charity shop recently. It's out of print, my original copy is in storage somewhere, but it was one of my favourites among George Higgins' novels, and I wrote about it recently, from memory, in my chapter on Higgins' and Robert B Parker's Boston for Maxim Jakubowski's Following The Detectives. I wanted to re-read the book, almost 20 years after it was originally published in 1991, to see how accurate my memory had been but also to gauge just how much two decades might have changed my appreciation of Higgins.

Turns out I had remembered the book well, and that it holds up rather better than I thought it might. The novel tells the story of Joe Corey, a up-and-coming New York mergers and acquisitions lawyer, whose wife takes a job as a professor at Mount Holyoke, up in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, near the town of Shropshire where her grandfather, James Mandeville, president of the local bank, was murdered just before Christmas 23 years earlier. Dissatisfied with his current life, Joe gets drawn into the unsolved crime, made to look like a suicide, and begins to investigate.

The novel tells two stories. One is the story of the crime, and the other is the story of how life actually works in the world where society still functions in terms of people. This was Mandeville's talent, to be the unprepossessing big-shot in his small town. Corey's volunteer efforts on the case impress a local DA, who puts him on to a retired investigator, Baldo Iannuci, who begins to take him through the few clues buried in the minutiae of the case. Meanwhile, Baldo initates Corey into the way a small town works, the give and take that makes it function. The two lessons interweave, of course, and it is through small things dropped casually into coversation, little facts, seemingly unimportant, that are the result of long-developed relationships, that Baldo and Joe begin to get close to the truth.

There is an element of the too-pat here, as one or two recollections come just too easily or coveniently, and occasionally you wish the voices telling the story were more distinctly individual. But meanwhile, Joe is learning why liquor store owners offer some customers discounts, and how real estate agents behave with their customers. 'The first principle,' Baldo says, ' that people live up to your expectations. If you let them know you expect them to hammer you, well, they won't disappoint you--they'll do it.' It is a rough principle, but a fair one if you're treating people with respect.

Which of course is what Jim Mandeville never figured on. He had taken a loan to buy property; he'd guessed right and now his property was worth far more than the loan. In his world that wouldn't change the game. But for the man from whom he'd borrowed the money, the game was played differently, and it did change. This is also the game Joe Corey discovers he is leaving behind. Higgins ties all the ends together smartly, his two strands weaving together perfectly, and you almost expect 'here endeth the lesson' to pop up somewhere.

The reason I wondered how The Mandeville Talent would hold up was the nature of the changes we've seen in our world since then, and the way the zero-sum game of gangsters, merchant bankers and merger and acquisition lawyers has penetrated right down to small town America. Higgins left Boston for this story partly because he'd investigated a similar small town murder, but more importantly because he wanted to explain society's workings at the micro level. I think he saw the world changing quickly, and needed distance from the Hub, and the State House, and bigger time politics, to say what he wanted to say. Ten years later he would revisit western Mass, in A Change Of Gravity, by which time his recounting of local politics was already elegaic. Higgins knew that the give and take of life wasn't always, strictly speaking, legal, or in the wider sense, fair, but it followed certain rules, it made a certain sense, and things worked reasonably well. I wish I could say the same now.

Thursday, 18 November 2010


When this series began, eleven novels ago, Joe Faraday was the featured character. But his Portsmouth police colleague, and sometimes rival, Paul Winter, joined him centre stage, almost by force of will. This reflected their characters, the bigger-than-life Winter played fast and loose with the rules, and wound up working for the kingpin of Portsmouth crime, Bazza Mackenzie. Meanwhile Faraday plodded on, as frustrated as Winter with the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the police business, but too honest and decent, too committed to his own idea of justice, to give up in frustration, like Winter.

Where Winter's character has always been defined by action, Faraday's has been one of metaphors: his seemingly isolated house, his bird-watching, his communication (or lack thereof) with his deaf-mute son. As in his police work, Faraday's need for truths and sureties in his personal life has been a problem, not least with his current girlfriend, the French sociologist Gabrielle. Borrowed Light begins with a car crash; Joe and Gabrielle are on holiday in Egypt, their driver is killed, his injuries are worse than hers, and by the time he wakes up Gabrielle has already become attached to a young girl from Gaza, who suffered terrible burns from an Israeli phosphorus bomb during the recent invasion. Joe returns to Portsmouth; Gabrielle and the girl follow eventually, and by now she wants to essay the almost impossible task of adopting the child.

Meanwhile, Joe is greeted back at work by a huge case, the murder of four people, their corpses found charred in the remains of a fire at an Isle Of Wight farmhouse. The killings involve drugs, and Bazza, and because of that Winter, but as the story progresses Winter, prodded by his former protege Jimmy Suttle, begins to realise he's had enough of the dark side of the street. Particularly as Bazza has decided to run for mayor of Portsmouth, and the press seem to be lapping up the image he's selling, of the rough local boy made good. It's another lovely reversal of the situation, but it's like a slap of reality when Bazza, while keeping Winter in the dark, reverts to violent form. But such realisation may be too late. It may also be too late for Faraday, who finds Gabrielle more and more distant, and, despite the thrill of the chase, finds himself less and less able to focus on his work.

Hurley builds a engrossing story, mixing his very accurate-feeling police procedural with the internal traumas of both Winter and Faraday, less reflections of each other than a sort of copshop yin and yang. Both characters seem somehow more real than most cops—eve though Faraday is very much in the depressive tradition of Martin Beck or Wallander, and Winter could come from Joseph Wambaugh or Trevor Preston. And they run up against a brick wall engineered by a madam who could come out of Raymond Chandler at his most fearful of cold calculating black widows.

It's all a heady mix, but the focus is our two main characters, and the ending, while not quite a surprise, is incredibly moving and well done. As well as ever so slightly ambiguous, if you want to read it that way. Hurley has always handled the complicated mix of police work, social analysis of Portsmouth (and by extension, the country—and the new 'coalition' government isn't spared), and the lives of his deeply-faceted characters. The Faraday and Winter series has done what John Harvey did with Resnick in Nottingham, or Ian Rankin with Rebus in Edinburgh, with increasing flair and deepening feeling. It really deserves a place in the British pantheon.

Borrowed Light by Graham Hurley
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9781409101239

This review will also appear at Crime Time,

Thursday, 11 November 2010


When Star first appeared, the attention was directed at Peter Biskind's claim (established through a mathematical assumption that had no basis in statistical reality) that Warren Beatty had slept with 12,775 women. The number fell far short of Wilt Chamberlain's 20,000, but Beatty's might claim a triumph of celebrity quality over quantity. Some who argued against Biskind's exaggeration would point to the relative stability of Beatty's longer term relationships: opportunity argued against Biskind's multiplication of an arbitrary daily body-count. The numbers game got Biskind the publicity he sought, but served to distract the audience, including most reviewers, from the heart of the book, which, in its way is as penetrating an analysis of the workings of Hollywood as was his Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The British edition of Star was subtitled 'The Life And Wild Times of Warren Beatty', perhaps to cash in on Easy Riders, but the American subtitle was 'How Warren Beatty Seduced America', which is better, but really should have been 'How Warren Beatty Seduced Hollywood'. Because it's arguable just how much America itself has ever really been seduced by him, but inarguable that from the start Beatty has known who his real constituency was, and that constituency has bought was he is selling. Not for nothing was he on the cover of Time billed as 'Mr. Hollywood'. Beatty repeatedly seduced studio execs into ponying up money, even when his reputation for going over budget and over schedule and his remarkable inability to make creative decisions preceded him.

Beatty's film career is most often summed up in comparison to Orson Welles, the only other filmmaker to receive Oscar nominations as producer, director, writer and actor. Like Welles, his career is marked by remarkably few films, and his reputation built on even fewer. Bonnie & Clyde, a landmark which he produced as well as starred in, was Beatty's eighth feature film; he has appeared in only 14 in the 40 years that followed. He's directed only four: Heaven Can Wait (in which Buck Henry managed to hang onto a co-directing credit), Reds, Dick Tracy and Bulworth, and taken credit on five as a writer: Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bulworth, and Love Affair. But as Biskind demonstrates in great detail, it would be foolish to assume Beatty wasn't in some degree of control on virtually all his post-Bonnie films.

Beatty's career resembles his love life: the shining highlights of which are almost buried under an almost childish desire not to miss a single opportunity. Again and again in Star, we see Beatty's relentless and tireless ability to pursue what he wants, but his inability to decide what it is that he does want. He shoots scores of takes, miles of coverage, and relies on armies of editors to keep it all straight. He's not a director, he's a decider, says one observer. He drives screenwriters to distraction, becoming a co-writer by simply reworking, or getting them or someone else uncredited, to rework every word they write.

Beatty's reputation rests largely on seven films: Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy, and Bulworth. Some might add Dick Tracy. I'd include The Parallax View, but consider Heaven Can Wait a pleasant but fairly useless vanity remake which Hollywood liked because it showed them in the kind of light in which they like to be seen.

What stands out in all those canonical films is Beatty the actor plays relatively impotent characters upon whom fate plays itself out. They are often puzzled, if not befuddled, and looking for answers to questions they might not even be able to frame. Clyde Barrow is literally impotent and dies defenseless in an ambush. McCabe dies in a snowdrift, George just peters out, Joe Pendleton might or might not come back and be recognised, John Reed gets sick and dies, Bugsy and Bulworth are assassinated (as is Joe Frady in Parallax). Even Dick Tracy, like Beatty, can't make up his mind about women and families. Apart from Tracy, they are all cut off before they get to accomplish what they set out to accomplish, and if that isn't a metaphor for Beatty's film career I don't know what is.

Biskind isn't very interested in the forgettable parts of that career, and it's true few of his other films bear watching. Beatty started as beefcake on Broadway, interestingly by being taken up by Joshua Logan and William Inge, both of whom were gay. He gathered a Tony nomination, and his first film role came in Elia Kazan's adaptation of Inge's Splendour In The Grass, where he starred with Natalie Wood. Before that, however, he had played Milton Armitage, a sophisticated charmer, in six episodes of TV's Dobie Gillis show. Armitage is set up in opposition to the all-american Dobie, and I'd argue that was always the position he was in to the mainstream audience: America may have been seduced by the outward charm, but failed to fall for the overall package.

Biskind does discuss the notable failure of Mickey One, partly because Arthur Penn is so intent on making something faux new wave, but also because Beatty is so inept at playing a comedian: it asks him to give too much away. It's a problem that won't be overcome until Bulworth, where for once he's willing to let himself look ridiculous. Otherwise, we rightly pass over much of Beatty's career, though there is considerable discussion of the massive clunker of Love Affair.

When you get to the memorable movies, Bonnie and Clyde does what Penn failed to do in Mickey One. It also caught the popular zeitgeist, to the extent it even became a fashion trend, and of course its choreographed violence (which according to Dede Allen was down to Penn's insistence on taking out more and more) was hugely influential. Beatty drove both Robert Altman and Alan Pakula to distraction, but McCabe and Parallax are key films of the era, yet atypical of Beatty in their sense of deconstructing familiar genres, rather than improving on them. In contrast, Hollywood has most rewarded Beatty for a great gangster film that recalled the glory days of the Thirties, for a comedy of manners (Shampoo) which caught the change from the swinging 60s to the me-decade, for a remake, and for a classic epic (Reds) that for all its innovation (primarily the witnesses) and brilliance was more stirring in the sense of Dr. Zhivago than, say, Northern Lights, and wound up taking a Stanley Kramer-type safely liberal position on the Russian revolution. Dick Tracy might be seen as an attempt to revisit the fashion triumph of Bonnie and Clyde. He deserved more attention for Bulworth, whose ultimate failure may be its uwillingness to go beyond a safe liberalism in its ending, and which cynics might have suggested was simply Beatty's chance to get close to Halle Berry and as a side-benefit also reach a new audience thereby.

Biskind's tale is littered with stories of writers left exhausted and discarded (Paul Schrader, after 'winning' the same argument five mornings in a row when Beatty was supposed to star in Hardcore, simply walked away) but remaining (cf Robert Towne) tremendously loyal to Beatty and his charm. Beatty can be tough on his friends: Jack Nicholson's performance as Eugene O'Neill in Reds is one of the best of his career, but apparently there was even better stuff left on the cutting room floor. And when it all goes wrong, as, say, on Ishtar, it goes monumentally wrong.

Biskind is also honest about Beatty's personal life, showing his need to control relationships just as certainly as he controls his films. But in relationships, you can't always steal the credits, or get other people to do the crucial work to allow your ego its full range. Beatty wants always to have it all ways, and that he succeeds much of the time is a tribute to his charm, but even more to the strength of his ego and his persistence in satisfying it. Where this gets shown up is in politics, where Beatty has been at times a power-broker for good causes (most notably George McGovern). His efforts on behalf of Gary Hart, originally McGovern's campaign manager, came to naught because Hart wanted to 'be' Warren Beatty, but in the end he did a better job of that than Beatty did of being Hart. One might speculate what Beatty might have done actually running for office. In a country where lummoxes like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger can move from the screen to high office, Beatty could not have been much worse. But he lacked the ability to commit himself to the quest. It's a strange inversion of his film career, where he's great at the quest and can't commit himself to the result.

Bugsy may be the best of Beatty's film roles. Barry Levinson seems able to avoid some of the worst distractions of his star, and in the part of the immensely charming gangster whose grandiose dreams fall apart and run afoul of the money men, Beatty again was playing himself. But he did allow himself a touch of the dark side as Siegel. It's almost as good as he would have been playing Howard Hughes, in a project he nutured for decades, but never got around to doing. He was beaten to the post by Martin Scorsese and an unconvincing Leonardo DiCaprio. His Hughes would have also been a facet of himself, especially as Hughes was also a film-maker with the power to indulge his every whim, and get away with it. That Hughes died alone and nutzoid, whereas Beatty simply moved to a domestic life years behind schedule, is ironic.

History may well see Beatty primarily as a producer, a maverick producer working outside the studio system while being dependent on it, and able to create the occasional memorable film. It will be kinder to his personal attributes which may have kept him from doing more and better work. One thinks of Clint Eastwood, who began as studio beefcake, and had his third late flowering as a director not happened in his 70s, might also have been recalled as an interesting film star whose production company kept him working for decades. Beatty, at his best, scored bigger than Clint; Unforgiven didn't have the impact of Bonnie and Clyde, though Sergio Leone might be said to have got to the slow-motion opera of violence before that film. Like Eastwood, you might argue Beatty has always been playing variations of himself, the true definition of a star, as opposed to an actor. But Eastwood's directing, you might argue, is best when he is ignoring his own vanity as a star, which includes films like Mystic River in which he doesn't appear.

With this book Biskind has provided the groundwork for eventual re-interpretations of Beatty's work. His legacy is likely to fall closer to Welles than to Eastwood, both for the work he did, the work undone, and for the personal life and elements of character that both defined him and stood in his way.

Star: The Life And Wild Times of Warren Beatty
by Peter Biskind
Simon & Schuster 2010, £17.99, ISBN 9781847378378


My obit of David Wolper is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. I had the dubious privilege of watching the opening ceremony of the 1984 LA Olympics up close, through its rehearsals, when I was coordinating the host feed from the Coliseum, and that was why I used the word impressario--even if it were monumental in its tackiness. In my mind Wolper was associated with any number of worthy, middle-of-the-road, prestige docs which I saw in my teenaged years, rather than the huge hit mini-series which came after: 'a David L Wolper' production was the sign of a certain quality which was pretty much umatched on US TV at the time. I particularly recall The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich; I had read Shirer's book when I was 12 or 13 and the film lived up to my expectations.

But I hadn't realised it was Wolper who brought Superman to our screens when we were younger, nor that he had produced two excellent though often overlooked films I admired in the late 60s and early 70s, The Bridge At Remagen and Willy Wonka. I might be willing to concede that Fantastic Mr Fox is an equally good Dahl adaptation; I mainly wanted to distance the Mel Stuart/Gene Wilder version from the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake.

The Olympics seemed to bring out the worst in Wolper, as it does to many artists, though I have a fond memory of his Rafer Johnson doc. Visions Of Eight was notable mainly for its unintentional echoes of Leni Reifenstahl and for confirming that TV coverage of sport was already outpacing what film-makers could do. But to me it is always a sign when an obit turns into, at least in part, a catalogue of the person's work, that they accomplished a huge amount that was worthy of note, and Wolper certainly did do that.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Lucas Paige is an historian, teaching and writing books that fall far short of the dreams he once had. His wife has left him, and he is in St. Louis, giving a reading of his latest disappointing book to a disappointing crowd of mostly disappointed people. Apart from one of them. Because after the talk, Lola Faye Gilroy introduces herself. The Lola Faye who worked for his father, at his father's unsuccessful little variety store, and whose husband shot his father for stealing her affections away. Luke's life was ruined in that moment, and he has always blamed Lola Faye. And she insists on talking with Luke.

Thomas Cook's novel recounts that conversation, and the flashbacks it triggers for Luke, his memories, believes, all the shadows and frustrations of his life now and their deep roots in his life then. Luke was the smartest boy in Glenville, Alabama, something everyone knew, something his mother cherished and his father frustrated. Glenville was not part of the genteel South, its decay and lack of amenities is something we've seen before in Cook's 'southern' books. I've written before about how his novels seem to divide into southern and northern, and it isn't just the setting. In this case, the work of Edgar Allen Poe resonates through the conversation engaged in by Luke and Lola Faye; Cook builds it slowly, with hints of mysteries unresolved, revenges untaken, lives needing to be accounted for. I kept hearing 'The Cask of Amontillado' in their conversation, and in those moments Luke snaps back from his memories Lola Faye seems very threatening indeed, in that classic Southern gothic way.

Luke's intelligence did not make him a pleasant child. We see him taking cruel advantage of his girlfriend, we feel his sullen resentment of his father, we sense the depth of devotion from his mother. When this fragile system is disturbed, the results might well be incalculable. It's not the run of the mill problem of the bright, arty boy in the physical Southern world, and in this sense it's not a Southern gothic at all. It's more the sense described by the recently-deceased Alice Miller, who wrote The Drama Of The Gifted Child, how the child's talents, and the parent's encouragement of them, along with their expectations, seem to drive the child away from them and into himself. This is the internal world Cook describes, and in its subtle accuracy it is often more chilling, and always more heart-wrenching, than the remarkable suspense he creates from one conversation. As Lola Faye's second husband, a retired detective, told her, 'Things aren't pretty in the human heart'.

The resolution, to which he has built so slowly and carefully, is one of the most surprising in all of Cook's work; it is not a 'typical' Cook ending, and that, for fear of spoiling is all I will say. One of Luke's books was titled 'The Touch Of Time: How History Is Felt', and that might have served as a good title for this book too. For history is the study of ghosts, and this is a novel about the ways those ghosts haunt is. But in the end I went back to the book's epigraph, which Cook takes from Marianne Moore, that least Southern gothic of poets. 'When what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived'. No, it's not a Southern revivial. But it's a brilliant piece of moody suspense writing, and it's a moving novel.

The Last Talk With Lola Faye
Quercus £20
ISBN 9781849162012

NOTE: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Saturday, 6 November 2010


My obituary of Leona Gage, the Miss USA winner stripped of her title the next day, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. Pregnant at 13, married twice at 14, two children by 16, divorced twice and dating Frank Sinatra at 19: it's a story that cries out to be dramatized, in a better way than, say, Bettie Page. Her brief career with Roger Corman might be worth a story too. Like Page, Gage's later life revolved around religion, and an ex-spouse who apparently continued to pay her rent. Although the Indy miscounted in their summary, Gage wound up being married six times, and after her first annulment, the others all ended in divorce.

Gage was disqualified from the Miss Universe contest when she was stripped of the Miss USA title...Miss Universe, of course, is a misnomer, since all the contestants come from only one planet.

Friday, 5 November 2010


My obituary of the graphic designer S. Neil Fujita will be in tomorrow's Guardian, but is online now, you can link to it here. Alongside it on the website there's also a gallery of Fujita's designs, which you can find here. I haven't copied any of the designs shown there in this posting, apart from the Jazz Messengers album, but note his own paintings in particular (an less typical piece of his art is featured right) and also the simplicity of the design in his guide to a career in design, the way 'Ideas' becomes central, with all the artists' implements playing supporting roles.

I found the racial angle interesting, especially because in a recet episode of Mad Men, Roger refuses to do business with executives from Honda--Fujita certainly must have encountered such problems, even though he served with the Nisei regiment that was the most-decorated of any in the US Army. The Guardian said the Nisei were 'sent' to fight in Europe, but I had written that they were 'allowed to fight only' in Europe, hence his posting to the Pacific as a translator. Medals aside, the US Army still didn't trust 'Japs'.

It also would have been nice to write a bit about the difference between Alex Steinweiss, Fujita's legedary predecessor at Columbia, and his work, but space didn't allow.

A few small points: my favourite bit of the Jazz Messengers cover is the pensive Hank Mobley, with his glasses, which emphasized the cerebral nature of this hard-bop jazz. Fujita retired to Southold, Long Island, and exhibited his paintings there (somehow that became 'locally' without the locality being mentioned. Nor his cover design for his autobiography, Mouth Of Reddish Water, is one of his strongest book designs.

And though I am fond of his cover for V, I have to say I like the original hardback, and the Bantam paperback edition I had when I was 17, a bit better. The Bantam incorporates the lines running toward the horizon with a solid, stone contrast to the Fujita which is, as I said in the obit, more playful.


The odd thing about The Kids Are All Right, which premiered at the London Film Festival and is on release now, is that for all its media hype, it isn't really about the issues of sperm donor fathers and their children, nor is it about lesbian marriages. What it is about is marriage, specifically what happens what something shakes up a long-standing relationship. In fact, in its set-up it's about as traditional a sit-com as anything on TV, and though as the film progresses they eschew the reliance on more hackneyed laffs, director Lisa Cholodenko also passes on trying to address bigger issues in a bigger way. However it doesn't have to because another film, Donor Unknown, which receives its world premiere at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival tomorrow, does exactly that.

Kids is a pleasantly enjoyable film, with Annette Benning (Nic) and Juliette Moore (Jules) doing exactly what needs to be done as the gay couple, and Mark Ruffalo as Paul lending small ambiguities to his portrayal of the sperm donor who fathered each woman's child. What is interesting is the way the film, at almost every opportunity, sets itself up for ease with its main characters. The most interesting, in many ways, are the children: serious student Joni (named for Joni Mitchell and played wonderfully by Mia Wasikowska) who's about to go off to college, and 15 year old slacker Laser (yes Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson) who's the one who wants to discover who his biological father is. Each is given a creepy friend to show their relative stabilty, as if to reinforce the normality of gay parenting, but perhaps suggesting each needs some further influence to put them back on course. Hence the desire to find a father. At first, it goes swimmingly; organic restaurateur Ruffalo is groovy and bonds with his offspring, which of course creates tension between tightly-wound doctor Benning and free-spirit Moore, especially when, after they meet and she begins work on his garden, Moore winds up in bed with Ruffalo.

The sex scenes in the film are telling: Ruffalo and his maitress d' girlfriend have energetic and fairly graphic sex on camera, and his scenes with Moore are also relatively explicit (Moore did, after all, play Amber Waves in Boogie Nights); they stand in sharp contrast to the married couple's love-life: a romantic bath ended by a call from a patient, and a very strange scene where they put gay porn in the video and Benning looks tired while Moore labours while hidden under the covers). The Ruffalo-Moore coupling is never particularly convincing, but it isn't meant to be; it is a function of each's instablilty: Ruffalo's sudden desire to short-cut maturity and find a family and Moore's for some self-esteem raising desire to match her success with the garden. Her name, Jules, denotes a sense of proud display, as if she is a trophy bride and wants to be more.

It builds up to two key moments. The more important is a thumper worthy of Oliver Stone, a moment when the entire movie grinds to a halt as Moore announces to her family, gathered on the sofa watching TV, and to us in the audience, that marriage is difficult and you have to work hard to keep it together. There is a question about why we would want to keep it together; these are not always pleasant characters—Benning is didactic and a control freak, a dominant father as denoted by her male name, Nic, while Moore casually fires her Mexican worker simply to cover her own embarrassment—but it's delivered powerfully, and works emotionally, not least because of Benning's initial worry that Moore has 'gone straight'. But in light of that, it ties things up too neatly. I kept thinking of the contrast with Cholodenko's remarkable 1998 first feature, High Art, in which Rahda Mitchell's ambitious young journalist breaks up the relationship between photographer Ally Sheedy and seedy German actress Patricia Clarkson. The ambiguity of Mitchell's character's ambition puts a spin on the triangle which this one doesn't really have.

Though it could have. Ruffalo here is a Boudu figure, brought into a house and slowly turning it inside-out. This could have been played with a more sinister bent (I kept thinking of The Stepfather, here) or it could have worked to a difficult resolution. Instead, Benning is given her own thumper, where she announces to Ruffalo (and the audience) that he's an interloper and if he wants a family make his own. He then disappears, and all the issues he raised presumably disappear with him. The point of the film now appears to be revealed by the title, the kids certainly are all right, and they will be all right without him. In the end, Cholodenko seems constrained by the need to make this film play to the mainstream; Carter Burwell's obtrusive NPR soundtrack score indicates this is an 'independent' film, but it seems to be worried lest anyone not get that it is a universal story. It works best when it tries least hard, and succeeds, in the end, at what it probably set out to do, be an entertaining light comedy with a slightly off-beat concept.

The real brilliance of Ruffalo's performance is the way he hides and reveals the essential immaturity of his character, and perhaps I was more sensitive to this immaturity because I had already seen Donor Unknown. Originally called Donor 150 (I liked the original title better, for its sf overtones, and because the donor is known, and is crucial), it tells a true story which obviously served as source material for this film: how a New York Times article about a sperm donor who'd fathered scores of children led to a number of them tracking him down, and the half-siblings gathering to meet their biological father.

Jeffrey Harrison is a self-described beach bum who lives with his dogs in an RV in Santa Monica or Venice beach parking lots and rescues pigeons. A one-time male model who posed in Playgirl in 1984, he at one time earned his rent by selling sperm to the California Cryobank, two or three times a week at $25-50 a pop. He has 'fathered' at least 58 children, and the film follows the efforts of a number of them to make contact with him. The central character is Jo-Ellen, a student in 'intelligence studies' (that's CIA type intelligence, not IQ test type intelligence) in Erie Pennsylvania, with lesbian parents, and it is she who makes contact with her half-siblings and is the driving force. Her innocence, combined with an obviously powerful need to fill an emptiness she feels, makes this a touching story; the more we see of Jeffrey, who has some drug issues, whose idea of fatherhood is confined to his relationship with his dogs, and who feels that the world is just a dream, the more we worry for Jo-Ellen and her siblings when they finally accomplish their goal.

Ruffalo's Paul is like a fantasy version of Jeffrey, without the issues except for the immaturity. He is immune to other people's feelings; he fails to recognise the hurt he causes Tanya (YaYa DaCosta) his casual squeeze who appears to be waiting for just a spark of maturity from him, and he jumps at the easy sort of family his sperm donor status provided. When Laser asks why he donated sperm he babbles about helping people, just as Jeffrey talks about 'the miracle attached', when the reality is it was money for pulling old rope.

In the end Donor Unknown is a far more gripping film than The Kids Are All Right, and every bit as entertaining. Director Jerry Rothwell can play with ambiguities, or rather let them reveal themselves and resolve themselves, and we hang with sympathy on JoEllen's reaction to Jeffrey, and what her future might hold. Because Donor Unknown concentrates solely on the issue of fatherhood, the difference between nature and nurture, the biological urge to find one's roots, and doesn't have to entertain or veer off into teen angst or the hardships of marriage, gay or straight, it is free to challenge its viewers, and it is certainly one of the best docs of the year, and a highlight of the Sheffield Festival.