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HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (director: Vadim Perelman; screenwriter: Vadim Perelman, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Lisa Churgin; music: James Horner; cast: Ben Kingsley (Massoud Amir Behrani), Jennifer Connelly (Kathy Nicolo), Frances Fisher (Connie Walsh), Ron Eldard (Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Nadi), Jonathan Ahdout (Esmail), Kim Dickens (Carol), Carlos Gómez (Lt. Alvarez), Navi Rawat (Soraya); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Michael London; Dreamworks; 2003)
“There was nothing left to think about after all the dust cleared, just another movie that got eaten up in the Bay Area fog.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Russian immigrant filmmaker Vadim Perelman (known for his TV commercials) makes his debut as a feature film director as he adapts Andre Dubus III’s psychological dramatic novel–an overly charged melodrama about a real estate battle that escalates into a multi-tragic event with severe consequences for all parties.

Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is a recovering alcoholic residing in the Bay Area, whose hubby left her during the past year over differences regarding raising a family. The distraught Kathy loses her house to the city after a mistake is made in her tax assessment, where she is charged a business tax and fails to open letters telling her how to correct the situation. The young lady is alienated from her mother, who lives in another part of the country, and has also lost contact with her workaholic brother, and seems helplessly lost in a daze of self-pity and bitterness–in other words she’s all fucked up. Her deceased father left the house to her and her brother after 30 years of paying off a mortgage, and she’s overcome that she has lost her last security blanket–a place she’s had on her own for the last three years and where she still has happy memories from her childhood.

A real estate auction takes place the next day after domestic maid Kathy is evicted, and the only sympathy she gets from the officials is from Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard) who gives her the name of a legal aid lawyer and gets a moving company to haul her possessions away to be placed in storage.

The house with a view and a good location is immediately gobbled up by enterprising Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) for a bargain basement price. The proud and probably once ruthless colonel has secretly for the last four years humbled himself to work at a few low-skilled jobs (on a road maintenance crew and in a convenience store) to gives his family some material dignity through the money he has saved. He’s become an American citizen and has a high school aged sensitive son Esmail and a pretty daughter Soraya whom he just married off to a prominent Iranian family, and a long-suffering wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who is still not fluent in English and yearns for a homeland she can’t return to and the opulent lifestyle realized in their cozy bungalow by the Caspian Sea. The colonel went into exile after the Shah lost power to the Ayatollah, and now that he’s married off his daughter he aims to make four times what it was worth by selling this house after some inexpensive repairs and putting up a terrace on the roof to view the sea. The dedicated family man, the opposite of Kathy’s family, is doing all this for his son’s education and to buy a better home so his wife will again be happy and get the luxury life she deserves.

The film is at its dramatic best as it goes back and forth making a balanced case for each party being in the right, and how the law and the bureaucratic system is at fault for the snafu but it is the innocent parties who are left to battle over the house (used as a convenient metaphor over the human condition).

Kathy sleeps in her car and stalks the Behrani family outside their home, refusing to believe what has happened. Her lawyer (Fisher) finally admits there’s nothing to legally do but sue, which will be too late to save her house as that case wouldn’t be resolved until long after the home is sold.

In the meantime the sheriff shows his lustful hand and romances Kathy and suddenly leaves his wife Carol and his two young children to be only with Kathy, as he explains they were best friends and the marriage had no love. Burdon gets so emotionally involved that he threatens the colonel to no avail, and only gets into trouble when the colonel reports him to Internal Affairs.

As each side stiffens, violence makes its way into the foggy air. It comes in the third act and the film ends falsely a number of times before it goes overly melodramatic and Kingsley does his Sexy Beast over-the-top act and things get so out of hand, that it all becomes very hard to believe. There are gun battles, suicides, an honest cop suddenly going berserk, and a series of confusing events highlighting the cultural differences of the warring parties. Through it all Shohreh Aghdashloo gives the most moving and believable performance, as she questions her husband’s motives and it is only when seen through her reasonable nature that the film feels the most genuine. Ron Eldard’s role is too undeveloped for us to be convinced that in such a short time how far he has estranged himself from the law and his family. While Jennifer Connelly is depicted as a wounded bird, one who we are supposed to feel the most sorry for because she lost her birthright to a foreigner. One who is in a state of shock about everything throughout and ends up as the unaware femme fatale that causes everyone else around her to be destroyed. With so many suicide attempts and real suicides to deal with, the tragic conclusion seems to be manipulated and by the time it all plays out it seems rather clumsily arrived at. There was nothing left to think about after all the dust cleared, just another movie that got eaten up in the Bay Area fog.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”