A tragedy devastating to experience can feel generic when transferred to the screen, and that, despite everyone's best intentions and an outstanding performance by Nicole Kidman, is what happens with "Rabbit Hole."
Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire's play about a married couple trying to cope with the accidental death of their 4-year-old son was nominated for five Tonys and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and it's likely that the intensity and intimacy of the theatrical experience was a factor in its success.
As a film directed by John Cameron Mitchell, however, "Rabbit Hole" finds its focus diluted. Though effective in moments, largely thanks to Kidman's elegant, delicate performance, the piece as a whole feels earnest and well-meaning but rarely compelling, a film that is almost too decorous to be as involving as it should be.
Husband and wife Howie and Becca live in a beautiful house in a friendly suburban neighborhood, but "Rabbit Hole" immediately signals us through Anton Sanko's spare score that all is not well in their neck of the woods.
Kidman's Becca may look happy enough planting flowers in her backyard, but she is deeply mourning her loss. It's typical of the film's weakness for the obvious that a neighbor who comes over to invite her and Howie to dinner ends up stepping on one of those carefully made plantings. Ouch.
Though in theory Howie and Becca are united in their grief over the death of their son eight months ago, in practice they are on different wavelengths. It's not so much that their ideas are in conflict as that they differ in how extensively to implement them.
Howie ( Aaron Eckhart) may still sneak glimpses at old cellphone videos of his son but in general he is ready to continue with life. He benefits from the support group he and Becca go to and is even considering, though his wife definitely is not, having another child.
If Howie's reactions are very straightforward, Becca's are anything but, and it is a tribute to Kidman's great skill that she captures all of this character's nuances and contradictions.
On the one hand, Becca is quicker to get rid of her son's clothes and take his childish artwork off the kitchen walls, but that is just a mask for her intense pain. She may look like she's coping, but under the surface she is still a wound-tight wreck.
Tart-tongued and implacable, Becca lashes out at everyone around her, starting with Howie but not ending there. She snaps at her God-fearing mother, Nat ( Dianne Wiest), when she tries to offer comfort and is annoyed at her party-animal sister Izzy ( Tammy Blanchard), especially when Izzy reveals that she has just gotten pregnant. When Becca is in a mood, nothing anyone else says is anything but wrong.
Though both husband and wife are in terrible shape from the same cause, "Rabbit Hole" posits that what could have brought them together is pulling them apart. There is no room in either of their lives to take on the spouse's pain, and when Becca randomly catches sight of a high school student (Miles Teller) whose face she knows, a whole other dynamic comes into play.
While the film's actors are all capable, it is Kidman we want to watch most of all. When she is distraught and in pain, we can feel it, underlining how satisfying it is to see this actress take on a role that makes such good use of her great gift for naturalistic acting.
"Rabbit Hole's" themes are strong, the questions of how we work through grief and go about reconnecting with life are unquestionably valid ones, but an air of genteel familiarity stifles their impact here. A story of people perched precariously on an out-of-control ledge is not well served by a movie always on its best behavior.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, some drug use and language
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In limited release