Life as a House
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   E L I Z A B E T H   A B E L E

Producer/Director Irwin Winkler (At First Sight; The Net) was drawn to the idea of making a movie about a man trapped in todayís fast-paced life, who chooses to escape and rebuild a life. Mark Andrus (co-screenwriter for As Good as it Gets) suggested to Winkler the rebuilding of a house as both the organizing plot and metaphor of the film. Life as a House is a result of Winkler and Andrusí collaboration. When George (Kevin Kline) learns that he has only months to live, he decides to use that time to build a house.

George is now dying, but he hasnít been living for a long time: no one has touched him in years; and the last happy moment he remembers was ten years ago. His neighbors see him, his dog and his shack as a blight on their oceanfront community. He has made plans and registered permits to rebuild his house--but he has never picked up a hammer to start, living instead in squalor. His ex-wife Robin (Kristen Scott-Thomas) has a new life with her successful husband Peter (Jamey Sheridan, Law & Order: Criminal Intent). She sees George as an irritating intrusion. George blames Robin for not having a firmer hand with their son Sam (Hayden Christensen)--though it doesnít appear that he has been much of a father either. The architectural firm for which he has built models for 20 years is annoyed at his old-fashioned, rigid ways, until his boss (John Pankow) fires him--and George violently destroys his old models.

At 16, Sam is almost as misanthropic and trapped as his father. His goth attire alienates him from his stepfatherís glittering house, his perfect half-brothers, and most of his friends at school. He has been using drugs since he was 12. Classmate/pimp Josh (Ian Somerhalder) believes Sam has enough desperation and self-loathing that he will prostitute himself to older men. George insists on Samís living with him for the summer and helping build the house--which only George knows is his last summer--even though father and son have had no affection for each other for years.

Winkler deftly weaves in a strong supporting cast, who all come with their own quests and story lines--without losing his focus on George. Though George begins the work alone, the house attracts others one by one without an invitation, who are similarly looking for something simple and direct. By working with George, they gain the "fearlessness to give up anger and do something out of love." Sam reluctantly gets to work to earn money so that he can escape Joshís control. Robin starts to help to see the "new" Sam emerge from under his heavy make-up and attitude. Her younger sons enjoy being with a father-figure who has time for them and accepts hugs. Alyssa (Jena Malone), the enigmatic girl next-door, is fascinated by George and Sam. She's looking for alternatives to her mother Coleen (Mary Steenburgen) and boyfriend Josh.

Jena Malone has grown up since Stepmom, in which she held her own against Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. She is engaging in every scene, the wise Alyssa who holds onto her purity without being a prude: she figures things out for herself with courage and humor. The films drops the hateful/angry George a little too cleanly after his first hospital visit, but Kline makes the new George interesting enough, uncertain on his more positively pragmatic feet, that the film still works. However, Samís transformation is gradual and painful; Christensen has an emotional depth and subtlety that will make him an interesting Anaquin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode 2.

Also interesting is Jamey Sheridan as Robinís husband Peter. He believes his only value is as breadwinner, that he is what he earns. Peter does not know how to be at home, let alone how to be a husband, father, or stepfather. Sheridanís Peter is not an uncaring man, and he proves himself by willing to learn from his son and stepson how to build a house--and a home. The wonderful Mary Steenburgen finds a rainbow of colors in Alyssaís mother, Coleen, alternately belligerent, tender, selfish, sexy, and warm.

This film works hard at not being a "disease movie." Georgeís illness is never directly explained. After his outburst at his firm, he collapses outside. At the hospital, he undergoes tests--but we never see the standard scene of the doctor giving the disease a name and telling him how long he has to live. No one knows that he is ill until right before he collapses for the last time. Life as a House is not interested in Georgeís death: he lives more in the three months he spends building a house than in the 20 years that came before. Life as a House is about life, about the possibility of change, about the need to occasionally tear down your life and build the life that you want.

For such a life-affirming movie, Winkler manages to avoid a sentimental view of lifeís beauty, focusing more on the value of every day responsibility, personal honesty and work. Though George may spout the cliche, "sometimes things happen for a reason," the "thing" that happens for a reason is Samís aborted foray into prostitution--which puts him in the position to subtly blackmail a threat to the house. The film doesnít whitewash random acts of ugliness; the test is in how you take responsibility for your actions and move forward.

Winkler seems better at handling the tender moments of the film--with a direct honesty--than in bringing out the comedy inherent in Andrusí script. As is, the black comic moments add depth to the characters but without the sharp timing that would make the film truly funny.

Watching Life as a House is as quietly pleasant and reassuring as Georgeís ocean view.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: New Line Cinema
Movie Web site: Life as a House



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