November 16, 2001

House of Straw

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New Line Cinema made a mistake in handing the directorial reigns over to Irwin Winkler for their newest heartwarming tear-fest, Life as a House. Though he’s made a fine first attempt at an Oscar-fishing drama (his last film to even appear on the radar at all was the excruciatingly bad The Net), Winkler is too clumsy to keep the film from often straying across the line into overly-sentimental, overly-simplistic, “seize the day” preaching.

The film opens on a lush view of an opulent, seaside neighborhood in an anonymous southern California locale. In the midst of all this prosperity stands a broken down shack inhabited by George (Kevin Kline), and here begins the film’s central metaphor: the house. Just like the house, George isn’t in good shape. In the opening minutes we witness George lose his job as an architect; to make matters worse, he soon discovers he has cancer, which is vaguely hinted as being terminal. So George undertakes to rebuild his house, and himself, with the aid of his estranged son Sam (Hayden Christensen), who is currently living with George’s ex-wife, her wealthy new husband, and their two boys. From here the movie becomes a roller coaster of genuinely good cinematic moments mixed with tear-jerking vapidity. Sam, it turns out, is your standard teenager — though 20-year-old Christensen looks like a ridiculously unbelievable 16 — whose enemy is the world.

He’s naturally opposed to spending the summer with his dad in a garage that doesn’t even have a shower: he’d much rather spend time sullenly popping pills and getting high with his friends in Tahoe. The relationship between father and son is tumultuous at first, but they begin to relate under the relentless attempts at kindness and understanding from the always-cheery Kline. Here is where the film veers away from being genuine and insightful, crashing into neatly wrapped up resolutions. Screenwriter Mark Andrus should take his own advice and realize that change is something that happens slowly. Sam’s transformation is unbelievable: he instantly forgets years of neglect.

Another major problem is the multitude of bizarre coincidences in the movie, which drive it to unbelieveable Dickensian proportions. Some of the connections are so painfully convenient that they were obviously tacked on for no other reason than to wrap things up easily. This succeeds only in making the movie look ridiculous.

Which is not to say the film is without genuinely good moments. The relationship that develops between Sam and the neighbor’s daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone) is a well played out storyline, with a more realistic depiction of clumsy teen sexual exploration than is often portrayed. Both are competent in their roles as confused teenagers, especially Malone, who actually looks the part. Christensen is helped along in his role with bursts of Marilyn Manson and Limp Bizkit spewing his inner anger, in a soundtrack that is otherwise relegated to the background.

Kline displays the talent of a seasoned actor. He catches the emotions of the audience with ease and can bring them to tears more than once. But his sunny disposition is overwhelming at times. He often sounds too happy for the context, as though he doesn’t know how to sound any other way. His relationship with his ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) is touching and one solid instance of the film not being pulled into a stock denouement.

Somewhat-washed up Mary Steenburgen and Scott Bakula both make appearances. Steenburgen takes the role of Alyssa’s mom Coleen, who seems to enjoy the company of her daughter’s male friends a little too much. In another pretzel-twist of the plot, Coleen is George’s former lover. Bakula appears as a cop who probably isn’t supposed to sound like an idiot but can’t help it because, after all, he’s being played by Scott Bakula, who has somehow managed to crawl out of the utter lameness of his television roles, but couldn’t quite leave it behind.

Life as a House is a movie full of good ideas, often brought down by the mundaneness of their delivery at the hands of Winkler. He begins with a potentially interesting and somewhat original premise, but ultimately doesn’t deliver. For every well-written, developed scene, there’s another equally badly written and predictable moment. It’s warm at its heart and is decently put together with good acting all around, but when you stand back and look at it all, it’s easy to see that Life as a House was built on a weak foundation.

Archived article by Kiah Beverly