'Life as a House' is in terminal condition

Grade: C

In "Life as a House" Kevin Kline plays George, a man who is dying of cancer and a recently fired architect who lives in a shack by the sea, among neighbors who resent his presence. What is a terminally ill unemployed recently divorced architect to do? Build a metaphor, of course.

Deciding to tear down the shack where he lives on a breathtaking oceanview lot within a luxurious upscale community on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, George begins to assemble his dream home. Throughout the film, the house is presented as a work in progress as it goes up bit by bit. The difference between the house and the film is that the house is brought to completion in a satisfying fashion. The film isn't.

At the beginning of the movie George enlists his teenage son Sam (played by Hayden Christensen), to assist him. Sam can think of nothing worse than having to stay with his father for the summer, let alone build a house with him. But therein lies the springboard for "Life as a House."

George desperately tries to rebuild the damaged relationship with his son. The only problem is that he doesn't really know how to relate to a troubled and alienated druggie with purple hair, eye make-up and a face and body pierced with enough metal to effectively disqualify him from air travel for the rest of his life.

Sam has lived a rather sad, one could say almost gothic, lifestyle with his mother Robin (played by Kristen Scott Thomas). She is trapped in a sub-standard house of her own with Peter (played by Jamie Sheridan), her post-yuppie husband, and their young sons.

There are a couple of other characters, whose houses come into play, including the uptight comic foil antagonist (played by Sam Robards) upon whose lawn George's dog performs nature's duty, the slutty Coleen (played by Mary Steenburgen), George's next door neighbor and Coleen's pretty, rather loose 16-year-old daughter, Alyssa (played by Jena Malone).

Eventually, most of these characters come together to assist with construction of the house. George manages to win them over by his enthusiasm and re-discovered capability to care, withholding news of his terminal condition for as long as possible.

In the process the eye make-up as well as the piercings disappear from Sam, the frost thaws from Robin and is replaced by the renewed stirrings of love, the house rises over the Pacific, and none of this description gives anything away that an intelligent audience wouldn't have been able to predict from frame one.

The main problem with "Life as a House," is that there are very few surprises sprinkled throughout the Mark Andrus ("As Good as it Gets") screenplay.

There are however some redeeming values to "Life as a House," which mostly come from the actors, especially Kline, who manages to perform the obvious in an unexpected way. Christensen, who will soon play Anakin Skywalker, is handsome and brooding as the teen reclamation project.

Thomas projects a vulnerable coolness, retaining her bone china beauty, despite some unflattering lighting from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who has reserved his caresses for the sunrises and sunsets that dominate the Pacific horizon most of the time.

There has been more talk of an Oscar nomination for Kevin Kline, because of his role in this movie. Lord knows, the man deserves one, but not for this. Acting brilliance needs quality writing to complete that recipe, and here, the combination is one ingredient short.


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