Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Now playing at Lighthouse Cinemas and at the Santa Cruz Cinema 9, Life as a House is directed by Irwin Winkler, better known for his role as producer of such blockbusters as Rocky, Goodfellas and Raging Bull. He does an excellent job with this movie, helped by a complexly and delicately textured screenplay by Mark Andrus and by the consummate acting skills of the leading man, Kevin Kline, who knows how to execute intense emotionality with skill and grace. People have been comparing this movie to Terms of Endearment, but it's much better: where that film manipulated its audience so much that it gave new meaning to the "jerk" in tear-jerker, this one is surprising in its matter-of-factness and the way it pulls the heart-strings both gently and quietly.
George is a man in crisis. He has hated his job of 20 years as model-maker in an architectural firm, he is terminally depressed from his divorce 10 years ago, and he is emotionally numb. All of this is encapsulated in his house, a decrepit shack that sits on some prime real estate overlooking the southern California coast in a posh nouveau-riche neighborhood, populated by the kind of people he should have been. One day, he is fired from his job and shortly thereafter collapses. He emerges from the experience with a desire to make the most out of his time. This includes building the house of his dreams and resuming the role of father to his estranged and troubled 16 year-old son, Sam (played by Hayden Christensen of the next installment of Star Wars fame), who lives with George's ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her new husband. Sam is goth, miserable, into glue, among other things, and flirting with suicide. So George takes Sam in for the summer to help him build his house, and the stage is set for the drama that unfolds.
What's nice about this movie is that it is funny as well as emotionally charged. And the emotions aren't all that simple. Each character is given time to develop and each character is a serious, complex person. Even the secondary characters are given their due, and they emerge as people in their own right: Mary Steenburgen as the divorced next door neighbor, is especially compelling as a wistful, yearning single Mom who's done a fantastic job raising her wise-beyond-her-years daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone).
This movie surprised me; I anticipated something much less intelligent, much more morally self-righteous. Instead, it's resolutely non-moralistic about the behavior of youth: sex, drugs, even prostitution come into the picture and are treated seriously, but there's no hysterical moralizing. Adults are not always wiser than children, in fact, they often are not. Given that the film is, ultimately, a fantasy about bringing one's parents back together and finding out how much they love each other and their child, it's a fantasy played with a pretty light touch. It's also a movie where, instead of vilifying mothers-the usual fare of the neglected-child or man-in-crisis genre-fathers are blamed for their emotional distance, their all-consuming relation to work, or their cruelty. But the movie understands them too and feels compassion. And I suppose that's what happens when it's the father who's the bad guy, because movies about bad mothers never seem to understand or sympathize with their motives.
There are problems of course. The movie
spends a little too much time insisting that Sam isn't gay. It also
passes quietly over the massive privilege of these people, which it nevertheless
displays in the numerous spectacular shots of the house overlooking the
ocean. It does suggest that Sam is in part a victim of his privileged life,
but it's easy to blame a kid for the luxury lifestyle that, after all,
he's living because of the class location of his parents. If the
moral of the story is that you should pause in your life and reassess what
is truly meaningful and valuable about it (love, friendship, children,
parents), it also unwittingly suggests that to do so, you need to have
already made your big bucks, even though that's what got you in trouble
to begin with. The title says it all, pointing as it does to the
ultimate marker of value-property--in the state of California. But that's
what makes it Hollywood. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and
the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.