Just tear it down already
[Photo: New Line Cinema]
Kevin Kline turns in another strong performance in the otherwise disappointing Life As a House.
By STEVE PERSALL
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 1, 2001
Movies should require building permits, just like houses, to prevent those clumsy additions that can collapse and devalue a project. Irwin Winkler's Life as a House wouldn't pass first inspection.
While Kevin Kline shines, Life as a House is not up to code.
The film's foundation is sturdy, a sad-clown performance by Kevin Kline ranking among his finest dramatic work. Kline plays George Monroe, a designer of those small architectural models that computer graphics have made obsolete. Everything about George seems past its prime -- his post-divorce family relationship, his made-for-the-movies eccentricity and, above all, his health.
George loses his job at the same time he learns he has four months to live. Suddenly he has a purpose, tearing down the shack he inhabits in a plush seaside neighborhood and building a dream house financed by severance pay that probably wouldn't cover the taxes. At the same time, he'll rebuild a demolished bond with his drugged-out son, who is dabbling in male prostitution. Only in the movies.
Yet as George's circumstances become more somberly trite, Kline's portrayal deepens as if his acting reserves are kicking in to disguise the schmaltz. He looks frail and acts suitably brave, hiding his illness from everyone until the optimum tear-jerking moment. Even the visual symbols of tearing down walls with his son aren't as cloying as they could be. Kline keeps us from laughing Life as a House right off the screen.
Winkler even finds some warmly hesitant moments for George and his ex-wife, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), to share. We wonder why these two ever split in the first place. But George and Robin are the only two characters in Mark Andrus' screenplay who seem able to exist in the real world. The rest of the cast are simply posing in their assigned positions as rebel, foe, instigator and poorly developed comic relief.
Hayden Christensen (the next Anakin Skywalker) plays Sam, the son who lets his mascara do all the sulking for him. Sam is the body-pierced Marilyn Manson type who drops that facade in a single scene change. He's not as bad as he seems, but we knew that long before George did. Christensen displays a promising brood, but the role lacks any direction except what is immediately needed.
After that, the talent pool is quickly diluted by Andrus' shorthand drama. Mary Steenburgen is the next-door neighbor whose sexual dalliances intrude when things are just getting good. The same goes for her daughter (Jena Malone), whose meaningless allure leads to a scene with George that -- along with the Zen narration -- feels like an outtake from American Beauty. Jamie Sheridan plays another workaholic lout to give Robin a reason to fly. All of them are good actors with little to do except react and distract.
For everything that feels right about Life as a House, there's another factor to make viewers wonder why we're sticking around. Annoying detours into personal lives of people who don't matter seem like a screenwriter's lack of confidence in his core material. A fast rush to resolution for everyone involved is necessary only because script-building codes demand it. This movie is one rickety move away from being condemned.
Life as a House
- Grade: C
- Director: Irwin Winkler
- Cast: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Jena Malone, Mary Steenburgen, Sam Robards
- Screenplay: Mark Andrus
- Rating: R; profanity, sexual situations, brief nudity
- Running time: 128 min.
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