Feb. 3 2011 12:00 AM

Surprisingly witty and complex 'Rabbit Hole' is a triumph for Nicole Kidman and John Cameron Mitchell


Considering how many plays are turned into movies -- and vice versa -- it might seem like the process is relatively simple. But look again at how many pieces that worked wonderfully on the stage have fallen apart on the screen. Plots and dialogue that crackle in a Broadway theater can fizzle in a movie theater, which makes John Cameron Mitchell's rich, resonate adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer-winning "Rabbit Hole" that much more impressive. Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire, who penned the screenplay, have opened up and expanded the drama without diluting it and they've preserved, even enhanced, the essential humor that frequently pops up in unexpected places.

Considering the subject matter is anything but funny -- a troubled couple trying to rebound after the accidental death of their 4-year-old son -- it's slightly shocking how "Rabbit Hole" elegantly glides past the trap of wallowing in grief and grievances. When we meet Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), the central figures in Lindsay-Abaire's story, the initial shock of the loss has worn off. It's been eight months since their son, Danny, died, enough time to adjust, if not to completely recover.

Becca has encased herself inside a paper-thin cocoon of "normal behavior," pretending to lose herself in gardening, cooking and anything else she can find to pass the time. Howie seems to be on slightly steadier ground, but he often takes comfort in replaying a video clip of Danny that's loaded into his cell phone. Howie leans on a support group for bereaved parents; Becca -- in a blast of eviscerating humor and honesty -- recoils from the circle of weepy confessions.

Mitchell's previous movies, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "Shortbus," were startling because of their willingness to tackle taboos. While "Rabbit Hole" might seem almost conventional next to those films, it turns out to be very much in the same key. All three movies dare to discuss and explore what supposedly nice people don't talk about. In "Hedwig," it's a botched sex-change operation; in "Shortbus," it's the pursuit of sexual fulfillment; in "Rabbit Hole," it's about Howie and Becca attempting to move beyond the tasteful condolence cards and quick-fix pop-psychology to confront the question that paralyzes them: What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?

Eckhart sees Howie as a well-groomed, impeccably organized sort who clings to familiar routines and well-established attitudes. He relishes the things he can drop into his calendar (the weekly group meetings are just as easy to squeeze in as his squash games) to preserve the predictability of life. He always wants to be prepared for what's coming up.

On the other end of the spectrum, Becca spends her days flitting from minor crisis to minor crisis, dealing with an immature younger sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), and a dithering mother (exceptionally well-drawn by Dianne Wiest) who has an unfailing knack for saying the wrong thing, even though she genuinely cares about Becca.

Kidman immerses herself in Becca's sometimes turbulent emotional state, allowing herself to be prickly and abrasive when necessary. Although she's a sympathetic character, she's not saintly and she's not always as accommodating as she could be; there's a strong sense that Becca can't tap into some of the feelings she's longing to share, whether it's because her self-defense mechanisms won't let her or because she has lost the ability to access certain parts of her soul. The continual conflict between behaving politely and allowing herself to follow her heart bedevils Becca, and it powers Kidman's searing, captivating performance.

If the tragedy has sent Howie running for cover in rituals, it has pushed Becca away from the woman she once was. When she drops by the auction house where she used to work, hoping to see some old faces, she instead runs up against the harsh truth that the world turns without or without us; nothing stays the same for very long.

The play takes place entirely inside Becca and Howie's home, which becomes something like a comfortably furnished prison cell where Danny's spirit is ever-present. While moving the action to other locations might seem risky, it actually allows Lindsay-Abaire to take the material to another level. Watching Becca's reaction to a surly mom in a grocery store turns out to be much more affecting than merely hearing about it; the same is true of the group therapy scenes, which are scathingly funny and right on the mark.

The title refers to a graphic novel designed by Jason (Miles Teller), the introspective teenager who was driving the car that struck Danny. In Jason's book, life on Earth represents only one reality; there are countless other scenarios unfolding in parallel universes at the same time. Becca finds the concept bizarre, yet oddly reassuring. "So somewhere out there, I'm making pancakes?" she wonders. "Or I'm at a water park?"

In a similar way, Mitchell's film takes material that could have been oppressively grim or maudlin and refashions it into an engrossing, intelligent and ultimately uplifting drama. Becca and Howie's journey doesn't lead them to Wonderland, but to a world that's almost exactly like the one they knew, yet strangely alien as well. Alice reacted to her predicament by crying a pool of tears, but "Rabbit Hole" turns out to be the furthest thing from a sob story.