Life as a House (2001)


(director: Irwin Winkler; screenwriter: Mark Andrus; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Julie Monroe; music: Mark Isham; cast: Kevin Kline (George), Mary Steenburgen (Coleen), Hayden Christensen (Sam), Kristin Scott Thomas (Robin), (Ryan), Mike Weinberg (Adam), Jena Malone (Alyssa), Ian Somerhalder (Josh), Jamey Sheridan (Peter), Sam Robards (Nasty Neighbor); Runtime: 124; New Line Cinema; 2001)
“This one might be appealing to those who love an overabundance of sentimentality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very familiar sitcom tear-jerker by Irwin Winkler. There are set pieces such as: a playful dog who urinates on a nasty neighbor’s lawn, a rundown house as a metaphor for life, a strained father-son relationship that will miraculously be patched together over the summer, and a terminally ill cancer hero. Its heavy-handed message is about love being the most beautiful thing in the world. The film’s heart is in the right place, its message about communicating in a civilized way as opposed to being angry and hostile are not disputable, and the acting performances by Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Hayden Christensen, are all fine considering how empty and sugary their lines are–as the script by Mark Andrus failed to be anything but too cute and contrived. The flick just has too little brain-power to carry on its trite tale without being grating. You know by the end that everyone will heal their old wounds and change for the better, and that the old house will be torn down for the new. Besides the weather is always sunny in California and the comfortable suburban lifestyle relieves many of the anxieties; and, at least, the principle players all have money and valuable real-estate property to ease whatever personal grief they may have. So how bad could things be for these self-hating men and love-starved women!

The tragic melodrama is set in an upscale Southern California neighborhood, where there’s a shack with an ocean view overlooking a cul-de-sac. The main man is George (Kline), an unhappy, angry, fortysomething, divorced man, who is a building designer and lives in the shack he inherited from the deceased father he had a love/hate relationship with. That father, it is revealed, was an alcoholic with a nasty disposition who killed his wife while driving when drunk and caused a two-car crash that also left a girl in the other vehicle crippled for life.

The rundown shack is an eyesore in this upper-class-community but George doesn’t care about anyone but himself, and has a nasty word for all his neighbors within five minutes of this flick. He relates best with his immediate neighbors, the sexy Coleen (Steenburgen), someone he went out with after his divorce, and her sexually curious 16-year-old daughter Alyssa (Malone). She’s going out with Sam’s idler high school friend Josh (Somerhalder), who drives a fancy red sports car and is a drug dealer. But with Sam moving to his dad’s shack, her interest is changing.

George’s former wife is the very attractive Robin (Thomas), who also lives in the community and has remarried a wealthy businessman who is distant and cold, Peter (Sheridan). They have two young boys of their own, Ryan and Adam, and the troubled 16-year-old she had with George, Sam (Christensen), also lives with her. He’s a Marilyn Manson dress-alike, with eye makeup and lots of body piercing, and he’s a huffer and a smoker of weed. The kid acts spoiled rotten and shouts out in a temper tantrum that he hates all the adults around him and wishes they were dead. Peter is a stereotypical unfeeling father, while Sam is your usual film type of teenager rebel. It was a toss up to determine who was more obnoxious or one-dimensional or nondescript.

It soon becomes apparent that father and son both have a nasty disposition and are really two peas on the same pod. Robin and George agree to have Sam go live with George for the summer and bond. This relationship that needs to be repaired becomes the most important thing for George, as he learns that he has been fired from his cushy job designing houses for a respected architectural company because he refuses to use a computer. George reacts by telling off the boss he hated every day of his 20 years on the job. He’s offered a very fair severance pay, but nevertheless his final gesture is to madly go around the office childishly smashing all the model houses he made for the firm. Out on the street, he collapses and is brought by ambulance to the hospital. It is revealed to him at that point but not to the viewer, that he is suffering from a terminal cancer and has three or four months to live. As a result the good side of him begins to shine and he becomes a changed man, now dedicated to repair all the wrongs he caused in the world.

George decides not to tell anyone about his secret illness and goes about building the house by using his severance pay and money from a life insurance to finance the project, with the reluctant Sam at his side. There are so many contrived scenes that bring these two warring parties together that telling of one should suffice: George shows he’s crazy by jumping off the steep cliff by his shack and into the Pacific Ocean — the setting looks like a tourist poster for California. By the film’s end, when Sam is cured of his hostility and learns his dad is dying — he also jumps from that height into the ocean. Like father like son.

Robin starts coming around everyday to offer up lunch and watch the two bond. She also begins to fall in love with her former hubby again after having affectionate chats with him, as she becomes convinced he always loved her and wonders why she left him. By the middle of this heartwarming mush story, Sam has become less hostile and pleases his dad by taking off all body piercing jewelry. He also finds puppy love with Alyssa to be a satisfying replacement for drugs, and the film just turns into a slickly made inspirational movie about dying and finding love. This one is just as corny as Love Story, and it also doesn’t trust the intelligence of the audience as it lays its goo on very thickly leaving nothing for the viewer to discover on his own. Despite its good intentions, it’s still a plodding film. This one might be appealing to those who love an overabundance of sentimentality, and a film that so audaciously finds closure through death and the healing of old wounds that you don’t mind that you have been taken for a sucker’s ride over a sugary slope.


REVIEWED ON 11/30/2001 GRADE: C –