LIFE AS A HOUSE
Director: Irwin Winkler
Cast: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Mary Steenburgen, Jena Malone, Jamey Sheridan, Sam Robards, Scott Bakula
MPAA Rating: (for language, sexuality and drug use)
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 10/26/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
The title Life as a House has two possible meanings. Firstly, it could be taken as a metaphor (a simile, to be exact): the experience of life as compared to a house or the building of a house or the life that’s lived in a house. Secondly, it could be a philosophical possibility: someone living his life (or afterlife) in the form of a house. Either reasoning is rather cryptic and suitable to the type of pseudo-poignancy the movie desperately grasps to obtain but never reaches. This is a blatant tearjerker with the kind of shady characterization and plot development that give the genre a bad reputation. There are eerie shadowings of American Beauty at work here, from the premise of a man near the end of his life trying to live it to the fullest to the final existentialist voice over and all the quirky twists in between. I won’t accuse screenwriter Mark Andrus of watching American Beauty and thinking to himself, "I can do that," but I will concede that where Life as a House falls short, it does so completely on its own terms.
George Monroe (Kevin Kline) is a man stuck in a rut. He lives in a worn-down shanty in the middle of an affluent neighborhood. His plumbing is unreliable. He walks around with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow. His neighbors look down on him. His ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) has married one of the rich snobs, and his sixteen-year-old son Sam (Hayden Christensen) dresses Goth, does a wide variety of drugs, experiments with masochism, and hates him. His job at an architecture firm has passed him by (he refuses to use computers and works slower than anyone else there). He’s let go with severance pay and has a breakdown, smashing building models to pieces. But everything is about to change after George passes out outside his office and wakes up in a hospital where he learns he only has three to four months left to live. What will he do with his remaining time, a nurse asks. He wants to build a house with his son.
And so father and son begin to build a house. Actually, the father tears down the previous lodgings and waxes philosophical while the son sits around and pouts. Both of them hate their fathers, but only one has reason to. George talks about his old man, recalling the way he drank and hit, giving Sam a tough question to ponder: which is worth more scorn—the absentee father or the father who’s around but leaves horrible scars? So he pouts some more, and George remains silent about his disease. Why doesn’t he simply confess? I imagine he thinks whatever bonding the two might do would have the depressing truth in the background, but all it does is give Sam another reason to pout when it’s ultimately revealed. The father/son relationship works for the most part—surprisingly even though one of them is intent on hating the other no matter what he does—and it gives the movie a foundation. There’s a nice rapport between Kevin Kline and Hayden Christensen, who both have the ability to find some level of honesty in even the most scripted of scenes.
Then there are the supporting characters who randomly become the focus of the movie when Andrus runs out of father/son material. These are the kind of semi-quirky characters necessary to make the movie seem edgier than it actually is. Take George’s neighbor Coleen (Mary Steenburgen). At one point, the movie takes a short break from George’s plight to let us know that she’s having an affair with one of Sam’s friends, and then the script lends importance to them. Her daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone) becomes a love interest for Sam, and while such a relationship would help a young man in these circumstances, it doesn’t feel right. These kids are supposed to be sixteen, but they have the psychology of twelve-year-olds. There’s even a neighbor out to get George and tries to stop him from building the house, simply to add some sort of conflict. George’s ex-wife is a vital player, but even she has nothing to do with the father/son relationship. The scenes between her and George work, but until the finale, they feel just as tacked on as the rest of the neighbors.
The movie looks great, though; George is building his in a prime location—on a cliff, overlooking the ocean, in a part of the country where it’s always the "magic hour." So, yes, the movie is right about one thing: if you were going to live your life as a house, this is where you would do it. Now if the screenplay had taken the effort to think about these people living their lives as real human beings, we may have had something.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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