Life as a House Movie Review

The good news for George, a middle-aged, washed up architect, is that an enormous life change has motivated him to connect with his horrible teenage son and build a house by the ocean. The bad news is that the change is terminal cancer. The good news for moviegoers is that Irwin Winkler's Life as a House is filled with sharp, solid acting, a decent, sometimes harsh, script, and a few surprises. The bad news is that anything worth seeing here lives within an uneven sap of a film, unable to break free from the traditional Hollywood devices.

But much of Life as a House is completely watchable. Mark Andrus's script (he's written As Good As It Gets and the underrated, rarely seen Late For Dinner) appears cookie-cutter: he gives us the lazy, lonely, eccentric nobody (Kevin Kline); his estranged family, including beautiful ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and alienated teen (Hayden Christensen); and his predictably uptight neighbors, pissed off that his ramshackle of a house has stood in their beautiful oceanside neighborhood for twenty years.

But Andrus gives the telling a hard edge from the get-go, which keeps Life as a House interesting in the first act. Kline, who we're used to seeing as generally kind-hearted, blurts to neighbor Mary Steenburgen, "How far did you just have to stick your head out the window in order to see my dick?!" after he uses God's ocean as his own personal receptacle. In the same introduction, George's son Sam (Christensen, soon appearing as a little-known character called Anakin Skywalker), wearing heavy eye makeup, sniffs glue, applies a noose, and attempts to pleasure himself. This is stuff I'd expect from David O. Russell (Three Kings), not Irwin Winkler (The Net).

Life as a House goes south, however, as soon as young Sam, softens for his Dad. When George, upon getting the news of his impending demise, decides to replace the old shack, he forces Sam to spend the summer with him. The fact that he's erecting a house at the same time he wants to build a relationship with his son, and reconstruct his emotional architecture as well, is painfully blatant. At the very least, however, Andrus's script is smart enough to make mention of the parallel: Sam, in being asked to help knock down the house says to George, "You're just trying to tear down your father." George's reply: "You should try it." [See also the title of the film... -Ed.]

Andrus's reputation for good dialogue, and there is some above-average stuff here, must have convinced some name actors to take wasted, bit parts. Steenburgen, Scott Bakula, Jamey Sheridan, and Sam Robards could've probably taken meatier, more meaningful roles elsewhere (even if Steenburgen does get to show off her finely-aged body).

And as competently good as Kline's and Christensen's performances are, (and I believe Christensen is a real find), they're overrun by poorly-timed, heart-tugging music, and choppy direction (will somebody please stop the overuse of slow-motion!?). Winkler alternates between the standard camera setup you've seen before, and a feigned attempt at Altmanesque, herky-jerky "verité." It's messy.

There are a few sequences -- one in particular has a variety of characters jumping into each other's beds -- that definitely raise eyebrows and keep the proceedings interesting. But for every leap into exciting waves of edgier content, there are too many jumps into the giant movie ocean of mediocrity.

On DVD the film adds a commentary track (so-so) and a whopping three deleted scenes (obvious cuts, all of them).

Reviewed as part of our 2001 Boston Film Festival coverage.

Never eat your peas with a knife again!


Life as a House Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 2001


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