"Life as a House," directed by Irwin Winkler (1999's "At First Sight
"), is an intimate family drama that gets a lot of mileage out of some very fine performances before making way for mawkishness in the final half-hour. Its premise plays out like a disease-of-the-week tearjerker (much like Christine Lahti's "My First Mister
" did), and it's obvious that it got some inspiration from 1999's "American Beauty
," but the writing for the ensemble of characters is strong enough in the first 90 minutes to rise above the cliches.
When George (Kevin Kline) is fired from his 25-year job at an architecture firm, only to discover soon after that he has an unalterable form of cancer, he decides to tear down his ramshackle home along the California shore to make way for the architectural triumph he has been putting off for so many years. With the construction of this house, George is determined to finally achieve one of his life goals, as well as use it as a means of finally forming a relationship with his angry, Goth-punk, 16-year-old son, Sam (Hayden Christensen). So, for the summer, George takes Sam off the hands of his unhappily remarried ex-wife who may still love him, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), and attempts to not only forge a close father-son bond, but also help him get clean from the drugs and self-destructive behavior that has run his life since the age of 12.
There are many things to celebrate in "Life as a House," particularly the impressively formed cast that sharply plays their roles with earnest conviction, but also quite a few missteps along the way. The screenplay, by Mark Andrus (1997's "As Good as it Gets"), excels in its dialogue and character rapport, but the similarities between this and "American Beauty" are often too close to be simply incidental, right down to the two dysfunctional families living next door to each other, the supporting appearances of Sam Robards and Scott Bakula, and the closing narration by the lead male actor. Because it draws comparison, "Life as a House" does not even come close to reaching the synthetic realism of "American Beauty," nor does it hold the same ultimate impact.
The 30-minute homestretch also weakens the effectiveness of the picture, as a whole. Because this is a movie about a dying man, all of the predictable, melodramatic stock sequences are on hand, and yet it never deeply touched me in any way. The drastic turnaround of Sam, who goes from being a multi-pierced hustler in order to feed his drug habit, to a presentable, good-mannered young man, also occurs far too easily and quickly to be plausible.
What is intriguing about "Life as a House," then, is the subtle handling of the familial relationships. George and Robin, who have been divorced for many years, still share a reciprocal love that proves to be heartbreaking for Robin, since she is now stuck in a dead-end marriage with a distant workaholic named Peter (Jamey Sheridan). Kevin Kline (2001's "The Anniversary Party
") and Kristin Scott Thomas (1999's "Random Hearts
") give lovely, impassioned performances, and they wonderfully play off of one another.
Hayden Christensen (2000's "The Virgin Suicides
" and soon to be seen as Anakin Skywalker in "Star Wars: Episode II") is a startling standout who appears against type as the troubled Sam. In a last-ditch effort to win over Sam, who claims to hate him, George is adamant to get to know his son--first as his friend, and then as his father. Sam and George's relationship is one that most anyone who has ever had a child or a parent can relate to and understand.
In well-rounded, smaller parts, Jena Malone (2001's "Donnie Darko
") is sweet-natured and gleefully free-spirited as Alyssa, a classmate of Sam's who lives next to George. As Alyssa's mother, Coleen, it is awfully nice to see Mary Steenburgen (who hasn't been in a major feature film since 1995's "Nixon") again, and at the top of her game. Coleen is a loving single mother who finds herself starting an affair with Sam's teenage friend, Josh (Ian Somerhalder), and the alternate confusion and spontaneous joy that she feels about doing this is nicely played by Steenburgen.
With a whimsical, catchy music score by Mark Isham (2001's "Don't Say a Word
"), "Life as a House" is a low-key drama worth seeing--when you've got the time--for its exemplary actors and their truthful, entertaining by-play with one another. What is disappointing is director Irwin Winkler's decision in the final act to both tug at the viewers' heartstrings and send them on their way with an artificial happy ending. There is enough that is good about "Life as a House" to make it a film worth recommending, but not quite enough to fully differentiate it from something that might air on cable's Lifetime network.
©2001 by Dustin Putman