Just what it is about architects that fascinates filmmakers so? Is it the metaphorical possibilities of the job, where one man has the ability to create new buildings -- and thus the potential for new lives, new communities -- out of thin air? Do filmmakers see themselves as a kind of architect, constructing with mathematical precision new realities out of nothing more than light and sound? Or is it simply the fact that having their main character be an architect allows them to have a protagonist who believably lives in a gorgeous home, has plenty of money and time on his hands, but is also a creative thinker? Advertising types are also popular for the same reason.
Whatever the case may be, Matt Tauber's The Architect is a promising but fundamentally flawed effort to use architecture as a metaphor for larger realities; in this case, the yawning chasm between one wealthy and white Chicago family (that of the architect's, natch) and a black South Side community living in a falling-down housing project designed by the architect. Leo Waters (Anthony LaPaglia, playing it gruff but a bit cooler than his usual hot-head persona) is the man of the title, living in pristine wealthy isolation with his bored and resentful children Christina (Hayden Panettiere) and Martin (Sebastian Stan) and his desperately unhappy wife Julia (Isabella Rossellini). While Leo tries to keep his family from imploding around him -- Julia practically wishes him dead, Martin despises him only slightly less, and Christina is a 15-year-old budding painfully and rebelliously on the verge of womanhood -- a mother in the project he designed, Tonya Neely (Viola Davis), is circulating a petition among her neighbors to have the place torn down. When Tonya comes to confront Leo about it in a university class he teaches, not surprisingly, the architect refuses to admit that the problems in the project, whether it's the hopelessness or violence, has anything to do with his design. It's the implementation or people, he insists from his ivory tower.
The David Greig play which the film is based on (director Tauber co-wrote the screenplay) may have had some opportunities to explore the explosive tensions contained here in this rather fundamental struggle: A black mother fighting for the well-being of her community running flat up against arrogant white privilege and patrimony. But what could have been richly and evocatively portrayed on the stage seems merely, well, stagey, here. Davis is a grand actress of quiet emotion, which doesn't serve her well in an underwritten part; leaving her character seeming less of a real person and more a symbol: Black Woman. Her name seems practically irrelevant. By contrast to Viola's sketchily filled-in life, we are provided ample detail on that of Leo's family. In fact, the film takes frequent detours to dash off and see how Leo's little scamps are doing. Christina is running around with boys and trying to get into college bars without an ID, while Matt judges his father in sullen self-righteousness while hanging out down at the projects, where he makes an unexpected friend.
The collision of worlds imagined here never quite comes about, as we are instead treated to a number of minor epiphanies and tragedies, their power -- and that of the hard-working cast -- sapped by sluggish direction. The small moments which do register are mostly lost in the overly schematic scheme of things, where symbols matter more than people. At least one of the characters dies in a disturbing fashion; it isn't giving anything away by saying that the character is black. It's just that kind of film.
But I really want to be an interior designer.