As a film intent on pondering the measure and meaning of a man’s worth and legacy, “Life as a House” is particularly false and contrived, pre-fab where it should be constructed of real, lasting materials. A quintessential case of a pic geared for awards campaigning — from Kevin Kline’s perf as a dying divorced man making one last grasp for life’s gusto and Mark Andrus’ overweening humanistic script to Vilmos Zsigmond’s beautiful cinematography — this is a family melodrama that becomes less authentic as it progressively takes itself more seriously. Irwin Winkler, assuming the helming post along with his customary producing chores, translates Andrus’ story in a straightforward manner designed to allow its elementary relationships and emotions to play to as general an adult aud as possible, but any hopes for a repeat of a success on the scale of a “Terms of Endearment” are surely too lofty.
In the general absence of studio movies with the slightest interest in marriage, adult or parent-child relationships, this actually stands as one of the more sincere Hollywood dramas about all three so far this year. But “Life as a House” only confirms and extends a long-term trend in mainstream U.S. filmmaking, which is to reduce genuine emotional complexity to its barest outlines and to translate death and human loss into a weepy case for redemption, no matter how unbelievable.
Believability, in fact, is stretched from the start, when 45-year-old George (Kline) wakes up in what’s no better than a shotgun shack at the end of a cul-de-sac in a pricey coastal Orange County, Calif., neighborhood, putters across his backyard to the edge of a cliff and urinates into the Pacific. Make no mistake, George is a willful eccentric: when he can’t get in the front bedroom door to talk to his depressed, Gothed-out son Sam (Hayden Christensen), he climbs up a ladder to get in another way.
Sam lives with his mom and George’s ex, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), various siblings and emotionally remote stepdad Peter (Jamey Sheridan), in a much nicer house than George’s but one that, like every other abode in pic, hugs the coastline.
George has a bad enough time with such neighbors as nasty David (Sam Robards) and Coleen (Mary Steenburgen), whose smart, sexy 16-year-old daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone, seemingly growing up by the hour) has her eye on Sam at school while running around with bad-boy Josh (Ian Somerhalder). But it’s even worse for George at the architecture firm he’s been working at for 20 years as a model maker, and where he’s suddenly laid off because he won’t change over to computers. George’s farewell act is to obliterate his desk and various models with a baseball bat, only to collapse and be sent to the hospital.
The unstated diagnosis gives George four months to live, and pic’s shyness in not stating what actually ails him until 75 minutes into the running time creates a needless distraction. Funded by the firm’s severance package, George decides to tear down his shack and build his dream house with the time he has left, and he insists that his son help him on the summer project. There’s much trite dramatics and a bit of forced comedy squeezed out of this contrived domestic situation, and even though Christensen’s performance makes Sam’s whining all that much harder to listen to, it’s easy to understand the boy’s puzzlement that a man with a supposedly good-paying job has lived in such squalor for years.
Andrus sets up the script’s dramatic conflicts on such obvious polar opposites, involving people plainly designed to take some sort of journey toward inner healing, that the playing out of the interlocking lives of George, Sam, Robin, Alyssa, Peter and the other neighbors comes across as a project out of a screenwriting class than one from the gut.
In many ways, Kline has the easiest task of all, since his character has nothing but his new house and Sam to focus on, until Robin comes around. Thesp is surest in the early phases, filling in the details of George’s faint and then clear sense of an incomplete life along with dollops of wry comic attitude, but, like the film, he’s on unsure foundation when George apprises Sam of the scope of his bitter life with a father he hated much more than his son will ever despise him, or when he continues hard labor as he’s physically wearing down.
As she consistently does in all of her films, Malone projects an inner glow, intelligence and energy most of her cast members leave somewhere between the trailer and the camera. Christensen works much too hard on behalf of his alienated teen character, and Thomas is curiously marginalized as she flits back and forth between the men in her lives. Though she’s asked to do some ridiculous business at the service of nothing in particular, Steenburgen makes the most of some kernels of absurdity.
Winkler oversees stately pacing with a production spilling over with pretty pictures. Dennis Washington’s design creates a highly credible depiction of a house tear-down and build-up, and ace lenser Zsigmond takes every chance he has to gaze on some impossibly cerulean skies.