Released as close to the Oscars as possible (the last week of December) and starring two Oscar winners (Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley), House of Sand and Fog is just begging for year-end acclaim.
Don’t mistake timing for quality.
Based on the Oprah book club selection written by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog tells of a house in California and two owners who claim it.
Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) inherited the house from her father. She has been depressed for months, to the point that she doesn’t even open her mail. When her house is seized, she doesn’t even realize why, because she missed the mailed notices.
Before she can clear things up, her house is sold at auction. The buyer is Colonel Behrani (Sir Ben Kingsley), whose Iranian family has lived in the U.S. for a decade. And although they give the appearance of mideastern wealth, Behrani is actually a humble worker and a good saver. To him, the house is an opportunity to ratchet up his family’s wealth, buying low, remodeling, and selling high.
The basic conflict established, the movie escalates the tension. Kathy begins an affair with Lester (Ron Eldard), a married police officer. He was the officer assigned to her eviction, where his pity turned into infatuation. Seeing the ownership dispute only from her point of view, he takes on her fight, imbuing it with testosterone and a little anti-immigrant baiting. Behrani rises to the challenge with his rightful claim to the house and his contempt for Lazy Americans and their sense of entitlement.
It is clear, at least to me, that Behrani is within his rights, and so the conflict of the movie is not very interesting. I get the sense, watching the movie, that the fight is supposed to be made of shades of gray, but perhaps that’s more apparent in the book. Just watching the movie, there is little doubt whose house it really is.
So this is the first problem with House of Sand and Fog. It says “isn’t this an interesting conflict,” but in fact, the conflict doesn’t really exist.
What’s left of the movie are the characters, the acting, and the filmmaking. Even if they were all flawless, House of Sand and Fog would be hard-pressed to earn a recommendation. Of course, they are not.
The characters do stupid things and are often hard to take seriously. Lester, for example, has a wife and family. He has a lot to lose by having an affair. And who does he fall for? A woman so depressed and irresponsible that she lost her house. She lives in her car and probably doesn’t bathe very often. He even sees her at work without shame, where his coworkers casually notice his affair. It’s easy to pity Kathy, but it’s hard to love her, even with Jennifer Connelly’s looks. And it’s hard to imagine anyone, especially a blue-collar cop, risking so much for such a skanky character.
After a violent scene (that seems like it was spliced in from a different movie), Behrani, too, does something that seems entirely unbelievable. I won’t reveal it here. I will say that it is played for all it’s emotionally worth, but that I simply could not believe it was happening, particularly in this man who has a wife, two children, and presumably some grandchildren on the way.
I simply couldn’t connect with this movie, or with any of the characters. There are scenes of great acting by Connelly and Kingsley — she admires how easily the Behrani family made a home of her house — he looks at her sleeping in her car with a mixture of pity, curiosity, and trepidation — but without the context of a good movie and solid, believable characters, these moments are wasted.
Director Vadim Perelman is an editor who until now has only directed music videos and commercials. He’s also the producer and screenwriter, giving him little room to escape criticism. In fact, most of the trouble with this movie is that it’s not well realized, which is the director’s responsibility.
The broad events and the story are fertile ground, but it’s the small details that will deliver the crop. In this case, they wither on the vine. The ending is unbelievable. Behrani’s tragedy doesn’t ring true. There are lots of movie contrivances throughout — a wedding dance lasts only 40 seconds — an answering machine has a sickeningly sweet family sing-songing “leave us a message.” These little details remind you that this is a Hollywood movie and keep you from engaging fully with the characters and their problems. As if to compensate, the musical score almost never stops, which only makes things worse.
House of Sand and Fog might have been a good movie if it were better framed as a moral dilemma. Maybe the book really is that good, but the movie isn’t.
Some amateur Oscar-predictors have liked Perelman and his movie. I wouldn’t put it past the Academy to find something to like in House of Sand and Fog. But in my opinion, Dreamworks should have looked for a better movie to release on December 26.