Life as a House is a fairly agreeable dose of holistic medicine. It’s a good-hearted movie that ultimately suffers from Hollywood’s inability to deal with good hearts without making them artificial.
In this dose, Kevin Kline plays George, an outdated architect who still muddles with cardboard models instead of the latest software tools of the trade. Upon getting laid off he finally realizes he’s hated his job for the past 20 years.
Timing is everything in George’s world. As he leaves the office for the last time, he collapses from what turns out to be the ravages of cancer.
R for sexuality, language, drug use
Kline (Wild Wild West) gives one of his best performances as George. Often the camera captures a gleam or a twinkle in George’s eyes that reflects the well-meaning and good-hearted man he’s always intended to be, but failed to because of his job and family history.
Hayden Christensen (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), plays his son, Sam, an unlikable Marilyn Manson wannabe who has typical teenager issues, and at the start of the movie attempts suicide by hanging himself in his closet (he is not attempting suicide but instead performing autoerotic asphyxiation).
Together, the two set out to rebuild George’s house and their damaged relationship.
In a brief videotaped message to attendees of the Denver International Film Festival, director Irwin Winkler (producer of the Rocky series and director of the Val Kilmer tear-jerker At First Sight) acknowledged the film had a certain degree of “outrageousness.” At first blush it seemed a weird thing to say about his project. But after seeing Life as a House, the comment makes sense.
To wit, the film is set on scenic California beachfront property. Amid all the premium houses and yuppie automobiles is a dilapidated shack. Reality says this house would’ve been condemned, sold off, or otherwise dispatched in favor of more eye-pleasing habitation. But this is Hollywood’s reality and George’s home.
It’s a fictional reality in which a patient can explain to a nurse he hasn’t been “touched” in 10 years – no hugs, no handholding – and then have the nurse close the curtain around his bed and commence with a “face massage” before realizing what she’s doing is… weird. Seems to me not even the English Patient got that sort of sympathetic attention.
Then there’s the terminal illness factor. In this movie, cancer is a quick killer. While it is to the movie’s credit that the death scene is handled with stunning brevity, simply transitioning to an empty hospital bed, there is the nagging feeling this movie is cheating. Mercifully, it manages to skip the never-ending, heavy-handed melancholy of Terms of Endearment, but the end result is questionable.
There are also a lot of subplots running through this movie and they all coalesce and play into the theme that what goes around comes around.
In scenes that could best be described as American Beauty Lite, George’s next door neighbor and onetime girlfriend, Coleen (Mary Steenburgen, Nixon), is sleeping with her own daughter’s boyfriend. The daughter, Alyssa (Jena Malone, For the Love of the Game), at the same time befriends Sam and brings about a sexual awakening in the boy as they shower together platonically.
George’s ex-wife, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient), is now married to an unfeeling Corporate American and spends her free time with George, helping him rebuild his house. George, in turn, sees some symbolism in tearing down the house, a hand-me-down from his father, a drunken deadbeat guilty of a fatal car accident.
And Sam also is out there turning tricks with the neighbors.
Life goes on. Make the best of life that you can.
Those messages are loud and clear in this movie and there might be some metaphorical or symbolic logic to the rundown shack on the coast. But, as written by Mark Andrus, who wrote the exceptional As Good As It Gets, the story bogs itself down in trying to mesh the cute with the heartbreaking in a saccharine confection.
The terminal illness genre is overused and elicits certain knee-jerk reactions that can differ dramatically between male and female moviegoers. Equal, or greater, affirmation could be achieved by the patient finding out it was merely a bad case of indigestion or gas (no disrespect intended) – and then living the remaining 40+ years of his life to the fullest.
Nonetheless, by movie’s end, it all comes out in the wash. Everything works out. Well, almost everything.
Life as a House ends with an unusual sense of hope for the world, which is needed now more than ever. It’s just unfortunate it was such a long, strange journey to get there.