Bricks, Mortar and Mortality 

Life as a House (R)
New Line Cinema

Those of us who review movies for the Indy often find ourselves at a bit of a competitive disadvantage. Since Colorado Springs is not considered a major market, distributors rarely send us videos of soon-to-be released flicks for our valued opinions. To make matters worse, since none of us do this for a living, we can't take ourselves up to Denver for the afternoon to take in the critics' sneak preview. So, we generally find ourselves seeing our movies in the midst of a "live" audience.

This can be a good experience, and usually quite humbling. Last week's screening of Monsters, Inc. reminded me that the target audience, the 5- to 12-year-old set, could find the tame quite thrilling, and reminded me to tame my curmudgeonliness. This week's movie, Life as a House, reminded me that some people like their movies deeply sentimental, with lots of pap and unabashedly happy endings, no matter what.

Good thing, since I might have panned the thing if left to my own devices.

Not that Life as a House doesn't have a few things going for it. First, there's Kevin Kline who plays George, a failed architect and the divorced husband of Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) and father of Sam (Hayden Christensen), a glue-sniffing, multiply pierced Goth who is going through an adolescent crisis of the first order. When George is first fired from his job of 20-odd years, then immediately thereafter discovers that he has probably only a few months to live, he demands that his virtually estranged son come and live with him and help him to build his dream house. They tear down the shack George has been living in right on the water (in the midst of a whole neighborhood of starter castles), and piece by piece begin building both the house and the life that has long been dreamed.

There's no question that Kline is a skilled actor, and his portrayal of an essentially empty man trying to fill himself up before he dies is nicely understated. The portrayal of Robin is also a fine piece of work, although I have to admit that I was more taken by Thomas's coming-on-middle-aged beauty than I was by her fabulous characterization. The best of the actors is actually young Hayden Christensen who does surly and hurt extremely well. There are even some well-written sections before the massive transformation takes place that made me laugh and cringe with recollection of adolescence.

Beyond that, though, I was not impressed. Take the story (please), which heaps one silliness upon another in an attempt to make the characters more sympathetic. Kline's dad wasn't just an alcoholic; he was an abusive alcoholic. No, to make it worse, a drunk driver. No, to make it worse still, he killed himself, his wife and another woman in a car wreck, and permanently disabled a young girl as well. Or take Sam, who isn't just a pothead -- he's a self-asphyxiating, glue-head, would-be hooker. Then, after a radical transformation over four months, he's turned into a saint by the end of the flick.

Or, take the filmmaking itself. This may seem like a small peeve, but it seems that the continuity person for Life as a House was on vacation for the whole thing. Days turned into evenings in the summer when it was just time to pick up the kids from camp. The sun rose and set in the same place. When Sam took out all his multiple piercings, there wasn't a single hole or scar. The roof of the house was done and then undone, etc. Nothing huge, but distracting enough to make me squirm. Isn't that what big Hollywood budgets are for, for goodness sake?

But, while I was squirming, I could hear the audience around me. I heard one sniffle, another sob, a wrinkle of hankies being taken from little plastic pouches in the seats all around me. I didn't poll my fellow movie-goers, but I'm guessing that they weren't all suffering from a collective sinus infection.

So, maybe I'm too much of a hard-nose, and should keep my opinions to myself -- which I would do except that the Indy paid me to go see the film. Just to let you know, though, that I'm feeling a little humble this week, and that my anti-sentimentality, pro-continuity opinion doesn't appear to be shared by many others. So, if you're willing to take a risk, go to see Life as a House. Take your hanky, or take your bad attitude. One or the other will hold you in good stead.

-- Andrea Lucard


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