Thursday, November 1, 2001

Movie: Life as a House

Posted on Thu, Nov 1, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.50

The metaphor of life being like a house would appeal to George, the hero of "Life as a House." He's a maker of architectural models, an admirer of beauty and a thoroughly unhappy man. His life turns for the worse when he's fired, then really nosedives when he learns he has terminal cancer. Figuring he has only a few months to live, George decides it's time finally to construct that dream house he has planned but never built. And since his fully pierced and weirded 16-year-old son, Sam, also appears to have a summer free, George decides Sam should help.

That George tells no one about his illness makes for one of the early signs that "Life as a House" director Irwin Winkler, 70, is stuck to a bunch of Hollywood movie clichés about the charmingly near-dead. Soon others collect like flower arrangements around the suddenly tidy loose ends of the lives of George and Sam.

Thank heavens those predictable maudlin moments don't burn down the house, because this movie is worth attention for a variety of reasons. The best reason is Kevin Kline and the opportunity the film affords us to witness him wasting away before our eyes as the ill father. Though Kline has played better roles, he gives George all the life he has coming.

If George's condition works out well for his relationship with Sam, it does even better with his ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Since splitting with George 10 years ago, Robin has made a new life for herself as the neglected trophy of an absentee businessman (Jamey Sheridan) and the mother of two second-marriage children. Along with George, she despairs of reaching Sam but finds a connection with him -- and with George -- once the house gets its pilings.

Writer Mark Andrus isn't quite up to the memorable verbiage of his earlier hit, "As Good as It Gets," but his main characters ring true. With the minor characters, that's not quite so. Besides cluttering his story with too many subplots (involving cops, neighbors, city inspectors and old affairs), Andrus' lines for teen-agers sound like a grown-up trying too hard to be hip. It becomes particularly annoying toward the end, when George gets a little, uh, closer to his reward.

The surfeit of subplots means a lot of good actors make appearances without having much to do. If they weren't such recognizable faces, performers such as Scott Bakula, John Pankow, Mary Steenburgen and Sam Robards might not interrupt things as they do.

As Sam, Hayden Christensen (soon to appear as Anakin Skywalker in the next two "Star Wars" movies) makes a solid big-feature debut in a role that could have dragged down the whole production. Andrus depicts Sam as a kid expressing his troubles in a full range of sex, drugs and rock & roll, and Christensen pulls his weight. That's good, because the second half of the film falls on Sam's shoulders, as Andrus burrows past the father/son relationship toward the son/girl-next-door (Jena Malone) relationship.

Having more of Sam only reminds us viewers (as we get out our hankies) that this movie worked best when it had more of George. Kline's angry, misanthropic character is the best thing going for this flick.


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