Life as a House (2001): Familiar Drama, Elevated by Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas

Toronto Film Festival 2001 (World Premiere)–Though New Line is releasing Life As a House in late October, in its theme and message it’s the perfect Christmas movie, a sort of a contemporary, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Among other things, like the Jimmy Stewart’s hero in Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, the protagonist’s name is George.

Rendering a masterful performance, Kevin Kline plays an architect, burdened by a messy, disorganized life, who, upon being diagnosed with a fatal illness, decides to rebuild his shabby shack into a respectful house with the help of his alienated teenage son (splendidly played by Hayden Christensen, the new Anakin Skywalker in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones). It’s too bad, that this emotionally heartfelt family drama escalates quickly into predictable sappiness, for it contains many touching moments and striking turns by its ensemble, overall representing a leap forward as a director for Rocky’s producer, Irwin Winkler.

New Line’s best marketing hook is the cast, which also includes Kristin Scott Thomas and a group of talented youngsters. If properly positioned, Life As a House may benefit from the need of Americans, in the wake of the recent disastrous terrorist attack, to see a healing, feel-good melodrama that celebrates unity, harmony, and other old fashioned family values, seldom seen anymore in mainstream Hollywood fare.

In the first scene, rebellious son Sam (Christensen) wakes up to loud rock music, gets high, puts a noose around his neck, and masturbates. That’s as tough as the movie gets, but then, with each progressing sequence, the story get closer and closer to Terms on Endearment, at best, and TV-Movie-of-the Week, at worst. Indeed, script by Mark Andrus, who co-wrote As Good As It Gets (directed by James Brooks, who also helmed Terms of Endearment) is vastly uneven, perhaps a result of trying to please diverse demographics.

Life As a House bears resemblance to another inspirational family melodrama, Pay It Forward that failed commercially, despite a name cast of Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. But in essence, the film is a throwback to a cycle of films, precisely a decade ago that dealt with male menopause and mid-life crisis among overachieving and callous yuppies. The best of which was The Doctor, starring William Hurt, as a successful but emotionally detached surgeon with an abrupt, businesslike manner, who’s forced to reassess his life and become a better person after facing death.

George Monroe (Kline) is a fortysomething architect who has harbored a lifelong ambition to build his own dream home on a cliff at the edge of the ocean. (The picture was shot on the site of a theme park in California’s Palos Verdes, where ocean-view homes were built for a reported budget of $1 million). But it’s been a fantasy that George has put off, while sinking lower and lower into a depressed state of mind that resulted in overwork for a big firm, divorce from him beautiful wife, Robin (Thomas), who’s still in love with him, and estrangement from his son. Sam spends his time popping pills, while working part-time as a hustler to older men (though he’s not gay) to pay for his drugs.

Opportunity knocks, when George’s is suddenly fired and then diagnosed with a terminal disease, which he decides to conceal from all those around him. At first, his plan seems wild-eyed and downright crazy. George’s cul-de-sac neighbors, among them a single mom, Colleen (Steenburgen), with whom he had an affair, despise his sagging, dilapidated shack.

The first member to rally for George’s cause is his emotionally distant wife, Robin, who once shared his house and his dream. Married to a man she’s not sure is right for her, Robin is raising two kids from her second marriage, and Sam, with whom she’s not even on speaking terms. Robin’s periodic visits to George’s house rekindle the flame between them, and draw her kids closer to him than to their own biological dad. In one of the film’s climaxes, George and Robin take the floor of the unfinished house with an intimate dance, soon joined by the other participants.

The point of Winkler’s earnest drama is to bring George’s family and acquaintances to the realization that his quest is as much a practical necessity as a spiritually redeeming enterprise, for a self-absorbed careerist and errant husband-father. Though the script is not entirely schematic, it follows all the requisite paths, namely arguments, counter-arguments, and reconciliations, until it reaches its pre-ordained denouement.

The yarn goes decidedly wrong with some contrived subplots and portraiture of the secondary characters. Least appealing creation is neighbor Colleen, a hypocritical, aging mom, who sleeps with her daughter’s classmate in farcical scenes that belong to a Blake Edwards comedy. Also misguided is a subplot that involves Colleen’s daughter, Alyssa (Malone), a sexually-curious girl, who first tries to bed George, then settles for his son. But the worst character, the villain of the piece, is that of George’s nasty neighbor, who turns out to be the gay man serviced by Sam in his car.

Comparison between Robin’s first and second husbands are also too broad and obvious. Peter (Sheridan) is depicted as a detached man who seldom shows affection, let alone physical touch with his wife or children. In contrast, the product of an abusive father, George is gradually turned into a soft, sensitive man, forced to recognize his sins before it’s too late. Last reel, which is particularly sappy, contains at least a dozen reconciliations that end with hugs, turning the saga into a schmaltzy disease-of-the week telepic.

With the exception of the misguided Steenburgen, the cast is uniformly good, with good acting from Kline and Thomas, most evident in some of their emotionally subtle encounters. Nonetheless, the great discovery here is Christensen, in his first major screen role, who possesses the looks and magnetism of a genuine movie star. There’s no doubt that after wielding The Force as Skywalker in the new Star Wars, Christensen will become a major Hollywood player.

Life As a House offers visual pleasures that go beyond its solemn story, especially ace lensing by Oscar-winning Vilmos Zsigmond. Too bad, the text is not as crisp and radiant as his imagery.

Credits

Pro co: New Line presentation, in association with Life productions GMBH &Co.KG
US dist: New Line
Int’l dist: New Line Int’l
Exec prods: Brian Frankish, Lynn Harris, Michael DeLuca
Prods: Irwin Winkler and Rob Cowan
Scr: Mark Andrus
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Prod des: Dennis Washington
Ed: Julie Monroe
Music: Mark Isham

Cast

Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Jamey Sheridan, Sam Robards, Scott Bakula, Jena Malone, Mary Steenburgen

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