Review: 'Life as a House' (divided)
By Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Given its laughably chaotic screenplay, "Life as a House" would have been more accurately titled "Life as a House With Several Hidden Corridors and a Couple of Surprise Trap Doors and Nosy Neighbors Who Come Over to Cause Problems When You Have Better Things To Do."
Kevin Kline (much more subdued than usual) plays George, a free-spirited architect's assistant who gets fired from his job of 20 years, then has to deal with the fact that he's dying of cancer.
But director Irwin Winkler and screenwriter Mark Andrus can't decide what the movie's really about. George's personal journey is often put on the back burner in favor of sexual hijinks reminiscent of both "American Beauty" and "Three's Company."
George views life in the deeply metaphorical way that often informs sappy commercial movies. He attempts to reconnect with Sam (Hayden Christensen), his pointedly surly teen-age son from a failed marriage, by enlisting the boy to help him tear down his crummy house and build a sturdy new one. ("Life as a House." Get it?)
George doesn't tell Sam that he has a terminal illness ... not that Sam would care all that much if he knew. Man, is this kid crabby.
Christensen is playing Hollywood's latest version of uncompromising teen alienation: a Marilyn Manson wannabe who's had his face pierced and pops pills all day long. (See Leelee Sobieski in "My First Mister" for a non-pharmaceutically reliant female equivalent.)
Sam's mom, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), can't control her son, and may actually hate his guts. But Sam's drug intake and self-asphyxiating masturbation techniques are only a subset of her problems. Her businessman husband is a controlling, distant type who thinks her love can be bought with luxurious surroundings. Before it's all over, Robin will also help rebuild George's symbolic home.
In the early going, when George and Sam are at each other's throats, touching moments arise. There's some enlightening dialogue, and Kline and Christensen have a couple of frightening-amusing arguments.
Both performers are locked into the matter at hand, with Kline giving one of the more thoughtful performances of his overrated screen career. And Christensen manages to keep you consistently entertained, even when you feel like dragging him by his pierced lip and throwing him over the seaside cliff in George's front yard. He's the kind of troubled kid that the good girls at school secretly obsess over.
Which brings us to the neighbors, and what seems like a couple of entirely different movies. The woman who lives in the fancy house next door (Mary Steenburgen, looking fit and sexy) briefly dated George after he divorced Robin ... but don't worry about that, because it only gets mentioned once, then everyone forgets about it.
Her pretty teen-age daughter, Alyssa (Jena Malone), is a tease who's very attracted to Sam -- and maybe even to George -- but won't touch the kid because she has a boyfriend. She does, however, strip down and take showers with Sam when he comes over to wash up in the morning. (Sam won't use the backyard shower that George builds after they tear down the original house.)
But, in the most bizarre turn of events, we discover that Alyssa's squeeze sometimes pimps Sam out to businessmen who want sex from a pissed-off underage boy. Sam services the creeps for a couple hundred bucks a pop, and a bag of powerful weed is thrown in for good measure. But don't worry about that because it only happens once, then Sam forgets about it.
Eventually, all these people are coupling in unexpected ways, and everyone starts working on that house as if it holds the meaning of life. Needless to say, all it really holds is the possibility that the movie might actually end.
You can't fault any of the performers. The blame has to be placed on Winkler, for not recognizing how clumsy the script is. He's a renowned producer who's been behind some terrific movies over the years, everything from "Rocky" (1976) to "Raging Bull" (1980) to "The Right Stuff" (1983). Unfortunately, his films as a director are half-formed conglomerations that never get anywhere.
"Life as a House" is beautifully shot, by legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, but let's get metaphorical again: a nice paint job is no substitute for a solid foundation.
There's the usual range of sex, profanity, drug use and nudity in "Life as a House." Incidentally, Christensen will be playing Anakin Skywalker the next time George Lucas comes down from the mountain to shake his money-maker.
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