In “The Architect,” vet legit director Matt Tauber’s clunky think-piece about race, class and living spaces, an affluent white architect is confronted by a black activist, who lives in a housing project he designed. Adapted from David Greig’s Scottish play, the film’s switch from Glasgow to Chicago is accomplished with relative (if overstated) relevance. Stage-to-screen transition stumbles, however, when the concept of “home” no longer provides an evocative offstage metaphor but, instead, becomes a thudding on-screen presence. The HDNet production opened at partner Landmark theaters in selected cities Dec. 1, mere days before its DVD launch.
Activist Tonya (Viola Davis) wants the housing project torn down for a variety of reasons, from rats to drug dealers to topographical layout, and seeks the architect’s signature on a petition to that effect. But the ills represented by the project fail to satisfyingly coalesce in her confrontations with Leo (Anthony LaPaglia). Abstract notions about spatial congruencies, which theatrically could be suggested by lighting and/or stagecraft, turn shrill and pedestrian when translated into brick and mortar and shot with graffiti- and garbage-strewn realism.
Beyond a general contrast between luxury homes for the rich and anonymous boxes for the poor, Tauber’s compositions show but don’t flesh out the differing moods of the beauty and sterility of the North Shore designer home and the menace and claustrophobia of the housing project. Statements of despair and desperation begin to sound hollowly melodramatic.
Though stars Davis and LaPaglia (the latter co-exec produced) infuse their perfs with emotional throughlines that almost compensate for the lack of coherent character development, the script keeps forcing them into defensive moralistic corners, allowing little breathing room.
The architect and activist are fitted with suitably class-differentiated dysfunctional families through whom their vulnerabilities are defined. The architect, blind to the widening gap between intention and realization both at work and at home, somehow misses the fact that his uptight wife (Isabella Rossellini in a wastefully one-dimensional role) is going quietly mad, obsessively cleaning and gardening. Meanwhile, his son has quit college and his 15-year-old daddy’s-girl is fluttering her burgeoning D-cup charms in all directions.
In labored cross-cut parallels, the activist’s teenage son has committed suicide, her younger daughter has been farmed out to an upper middle-class black family and her eldest daughter neglects her baby girl to watch reality TV.
These various “problems” are trotted out in awkwardly blocked scenes. Though the constant cross-cutting partially disguises the patness of the setups, characters are left uneasily poised between stylization and any more organic, internal rhythms. Strong standoffs between Davis and LaPaglia create a certain tension through the intensity of the thesping, but other attempts at crossing class lines produce pic’s most ludicrous moments in attraction/repulsion interactions between the architect’s gender-confused son and a sensitive gay teen from the projects.
Tech credits are uninspired.