LIFE AS A HOUSE
Rated R - Running Time: 2:04 - Released 11/9/01
Thank goodness there are actors capable of delivering performances better than the scripts they're given. Too bad there aren't more of them in this movie. Life As A House, written by Mark Andrus (As Good As It Gets) and directed by Irwin Winkler (At First Sight), is saved from being a complete melodramatic cesspool by its two adult stars, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas. Playing George and Robin, a divorced couple from southern California slowly edging their way back together while rebuilding the rundown shack they used to live in, the pair bring a needed sense of subtlety to a film whose messages are delivered with sledgehammers and wrecking bars. Unfortunately, the film doesn't revolve around their relationship so much as that of Klein and 20-year-old Hayden Christensen (soon to be seen as Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in the upcoming Star Wars II and III), whose character has become a classic (read: tritely stereotyped) rebellious teenager after his parents' breakup. Christensen's technique is not up to standard for this film (don't worry; it probably is for Star Wars), and burdening him with this difficult and manipulative text is an unfortunate choice by producer/director Winkler.
After being fired from his job as an architect's model maker
and learning that he will die of an unspecified cancer within
four months, George decides to make the most of his time and try
to repair the damaged relationship he has with his drug-addicted,
body-pierced, Marylin Manson-loving, 16-year-old punk son Sam,
thus avoiding the kind of lasting bitterness he shared with his
own father, by asking the boy to help him rebuild his decrepit
cliffside home. This comes as a relief to his next-door neighbor
and ex-girlfriend Coleen (Mary Steenburgen) and her daughter Alyssa
(Jena Malone), who are tired of watching him urinate off the cliff
for lack of sufficient plumbing, and to his ex-wife Robin and
her wealthy but excruciatingly dull and insensitive husband (Jamey
Sheridan), who can't stand Sam and want him out of the house.
Driving home the titular metaphor with unsubtle vigor, Winkler
has Klein hacking away at his old life, breaking down emotional
barriers, destroying all the bitter memories while the angry son
looks on from his chaise lounge. But soon George's unmitigated
charm (the kind you get when you have 4 months to live) wears
the boy down, and Sam too is up in the rafters, pounding out his
frustrations. And soon Robin is involved. And Coleen. And Alyssa.
All hammering away at George's troubled past.
This film is as well-endowed with nice scenery (by distinguished
Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) as it is with cloying
melodrama and hacky dialogue. Its supporting characters are inhumanly
trite and its sub-plots ridiculously contrived, with each role
designed simply to fit in some emotional pigeonhole writer Andrus
felt it necessary to create. From the horny divorcée to
the slutty tease to the rich teenage pimp to the cold husband
and his wistful, romantic wife, none of whom has any real bearing
on the main plot, the characters seem designed to scatter our
attention rather than contribute to a cohesive whole.
The point this movie is trying to make is a noble one, espousing the theme of forgiveness and redemption brought about by the cathartic qualities of hard work. Kline and Thomas evoke this theme with grace, and Winkler makes the movie visually engaging, but Christensen is ill-equipped to execute his extremely difficult and poorly written part, and most of the supporting characters are too silly to be taken seriously. ***