Life as a House
Life as a House

USA, 2001. Rated R. 124 minutes.

Cast: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Jena Malone, Mary Steenburgen, Mike Weinberg, Scotty Leavenworth, Ian Somerhalder, Jamey Sheridan, Scott Bakula, Sandra Nelson, Sam Robards, John Pankow, Kim Delgado
Writers: Mark Andrus
Music: Mark Isham
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Producer: Rob Cowan, Irwin Winkler
Director: Irwin Winkler


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

L ife as a House has a dirty little secret not disclosed by the movie's advertising campaign. To reveal it in this review does not really spoil anything, because Life as a House shows its true colors quickly enough. Life as a House is not just a feel-good drama about family bonds. It's a dying-of-a-terminal-illness movie.

This is not to say that dying-of-a-terminal-illness movies are inherently bad. But there's been so many of them that the conventions are carved in granite. So when you discover that Life as a House is a dying-of-a-terminal-illness movie, it dashes hope that the film will offer something new. Indeed, it does not. Except for the fact that Kevin Kline is doing the dying and not Meryl Streep, Life as a House closely follows the dying-of-a-terminal-illness movie blueprint.
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You know what the conventions are. George (Kline) exists but hasn't really lived for a long time. He has been slowly fading away from the world, assembling models at an architectural firm by hand when everyone else has graduated to computer imaging. His wife Robin and son Sam have left him long ago to haunt his decrepit house overlooking the Pacific, which is so uninhabitable that he lives in the garage.

When George finds out that he only has a few months left to live, he realizes that this is his last chance to do something special with his life. He must reconnect with family and friends. He must do more living in the last few months of his life than he ever did before. He must teach the joy of living to those around him, so that everyone appreciates the extraordinary gift of life. He must die at peace, with no regrets. And nobly, of course. It is essential that he die nobly.

So how does George accomplish all these things? He decides that he will spend his last summer rebuilding his house with his son Sam, who would much rather spent it getting wasted in Tahoe. Sam is played by Hayden Christensen, soon to be seen as Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, in Star Wars Episode Two. Anakin will eventually go over to the Dark Side, but Sam already has. We know this because Sam has facial piercings (that remarkably leave no scars once removed!) and is more than a little hostile to his parents. Oh, and he's a heavy drug user and part-time hustler. To be fair, the teen hustler bit is daring for a Big Hollywood drama. But this aspect of Sam is abandoned, only to resurface at the end in the service of a plot contrivance played for laughs.Kline contemplates life as a house

Despite its lack of originality, Life as a House is not a bad film--far from it. The production values are high, and nobody can disagree with its innocuous Hollywood life lessons. (Don't sleepwalk through life! Don't do things just because they are expected of you! Family is important!) The screenplay, the work of Mark Andrus (co-writer of the grossly over-praised As Good As It Gets), is competent and does elicit a few smiles.

Most important, the cast is very good. By underplaying all that nasty dying business, Kline prevents Life as a House from turning into a tearjerker. His performance is irreproachable, though both he and Jamey Sheridan (as Robin's current husband) did better work in The Ice Storm--a far superior this-is-what-life-is-all-about drama that tanked for being unforgivably melancholy and slow moving. Life as a House avoids that trap!

The somewhat chilly but talented Kristin Scott Thomas plays Robin, who finds herself drawn to George again, not knowing he's ill. Christensen is also very good, even though the script glosses over Sam's drug use and hustling. Christensen's role and performance could have been much meatier, but hopefully we'll see more good things from him in the Star Wars movies. Veteran Mary Steenburgen and promising Jena Malone join the cast as George's neighbors.

This House is no Oscar® palace, but neither is it a movie-of-the-week tenement. Like many Hollywood meaning-of-life dramas that are more contrived premise than substantive content (see K-PAX and Hearts in Atlantis), Life as a House is built on a rotten foundation, but it's a well-acted and agreeably watchable construction nonetheless. The laughably convenient plot contrivance at the end (concerning the enforcement of zoning restrictions) is actually a good thing, because it reminds you not to take any of this too seriously.

Review © November 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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