Life as a House
2001, R, 128 min. Directed by Irwin Winkler. Starring Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Jena Malone, Mary Steenburgen, Ian Somerhalder, Sam Robards, Jamey Sheridan.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Nov. 2, 2001
This family melodrama is as subtle as a load of bricks and occasionally as painful, but it offers two of the most finely tuned acting performances yet this year: that of Kline as a terminally ill man and that of Christensen as his estranged teenage son. Nothing in the overwritten script by Mark Andrus suggests the dimension Kline and Christensen bring to their roles, and Winkler's direction is mostly soggy; this is a triumph of the actor's craft. Cancer-stricken George (Kline) begins the film as a standard-issue Hollywood eccentric: He infuriates his neighbors on a tony, seaside Orange County cul-de-sac by urinating outside his shack-like house, and he works at a suitably whimsical job (architectural modeling done entirely by hand, complete with tiny thatches of faux grass lovingly glued into place). Sam (Christensen) begins the film as a conventional Troubled Goth Teen: Heavily pierced, black-clad, and bedaubed with Urban Decay eyeshadow, he huffs fumes in his room and considers a summer job in gay hustling. When he's fired from his job and hospitalized after a collapse, George retrieves his degenerate son from ex-spouse Robin (Scott Thomas), a seeming romantic turned Yuppie trophy wife, and the two spend the summer tearing the shack down so that George's dream house can be erected in its place. The thrust of the story is, of course, the evolution of the father-son relationship, which is far more nuanced than a synopsis of the plot suggests. Kline has a gentle, grave presence in the part. He's shockingly gaunt and haggard but radiates an exasperated warmth that buoys his scenes with Christensen (soon to be famous as Anakin Skywalker in the next two Star Wars films). And as Sam opens up, a certain skittishness remains in his bearing. (Even in their tenderest moments, Sam sasses George with sailor swears and chides him about hiding the pain meds too obviously.) Their scenes together are a pleasure, in no small part because Winkler gives both actors room to work. The rest of the ensemble does fine work, particularly Steenburgen and Malone in smaller roles as George's free-spirited mother-daughter neighbors. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are dedicated to giving their material the Hallmark treatment, saturating it with Mark Isham's mawkish score and glossy mise-en-scène that makes eye candy of the beachfront location. (I'd like to propose a moratorium on the Spacecam Aerial Camera System, used here to zoom blissfully into the California sunset at every available opportunity.) A tear-jerking voiceover in the film's coda strikes a particularly overstated note, explaining the obvious metaphor that guides the story and provides the title. None of these sentimental flourishes are necessary, and they dampen the appreciable achievements of the cast.