I like to think that Leelee Sobieski is an intelligent person as well as a talented actor. While the latter point is obvious, the former is a matter of me hoping for the best, because even intelligent people, we all know, can be sucked up in the entertainment biz. Still, it seems that maybe, intelligence might be helpful in the struggle.
Why do I care about Leelee Sobieski’s struggle? Probably because she’s done very good work (and a lot of it for someone so young), including a couple of high school romances (though, to be fair, she was the mean girl in Never Been Kissed and the dead girl in Here on Earth, so that, in both cases, she avoided turning into the glowing prom date), a couple of interesting chances (Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact and John Dahl’s upcoming Joy Ride), as well as a very famous lulu (Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut). Not to mention the fact that she’s been compared to Helen Hunt more than once. And yet, she appears to be riding out the usual teen-movie-star silliness with a modicum of dignity and some manifest respect for what she does—her performances are consistently complicated, so that her characters are young, hopeful, and ready to be dazzled, but also, at some level, too experienced and weary already, the way that a lot of young people feel these days.
I guess this is what I like most about Leelee Sobieski—she looks like she can hold more than one idea in her head at one time. And so, despite the thundering bad buzz for The Glass House, I went to see it on opening day, hoping that Leelee would pull it out.
Alas, she doesn’t. But she is really up against it. The Glass House is a painfully predictable non-thriller, where rebellious high schooler Ruby (Sobieski) is subjected to some mighty harsh behavior modification. But unlike, say, Disturbing Behavior, where the point of the kids’ abuses by their parents is made so very outrageously that you can root for the kids who are being so tortured and maimed, The Glass House pretends to be “realistic,” a thriller of the type that Hitchcock might make, or perhaps more accurately, that Hitchcock wannabes like Brian De Palma or Robert Zemeckis might make. It adopts a faux-elegance like What Lies Beneath, and unsurprisingly, comes up with equally tortured plotting and characterization. You keep wondering why no one in the movie is paying attention to what is perfectly evident to you.
From jump, Ruby and her brother Rhett (Jurassic Park III‘s very able Trevor Morgan) are in for trouble. He’s pretty much a nonentity, a plot device so she has someone to save in order to become a better person. But she starts off as a bad girl, lying to her parents so she can go out cruising, drinking, and smoking dope with her girlfriends. After one of these excursions, Ruby comes home to learn that her really nice, really lenient parents have been killed in a car wreck (a wreck that, very strangely, Ruby then goes on to see in flashbacks whenever tensions rise: just how she knows what happened is never addressed, though it’s possible she’s just imagining the crash and the chaos and the fear on her mom’s face). The scene where the cops tell her about the accident is grim, capturing the emotional hell she’s in—the camera swims around, taking her point of view, then fades to white as the cops hover over Ruby’s passed out body. When she wakes, it’s funeral time.
It couldn’t be clearer that the girl is suffering from all kinds of guilt and anxiety, but what do the well-intentioned adults in the film do? They send Ruby and Rhett off to live with the smarmy “guardians” designated by her parents’ will, a will that they apparently wrote a long time ago, when said guardians lived next door and everyone was feeling peachy-close. Now Erin and Terry Glass (Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard), look very suspicious: they might as well be wearing white-and-blue nametags that say, “Hello, I’m the villain.” Though the kids do have a perfectly pleasant and apparently concerned Uncle Jack (Chris Noth), they’re sent to live in Malibu with the wealthy-seeming Glasses, and guess what? They live in a glass house.
Within days, the observant Ruby notices that her foster parents have all kinds of problems, exacerbated because the walls inside the house are windows. So, when she hears them fighting late at night, she can also look up from her floor below to see the scene too. It works both ways. Because she and Rhett are sharing a bedroom, when Ruby steps out into the hallway to change into her pajamas (apparently a bathroom is not handy), she’s suddenly aware of Terry staring down on her, observing. Later on, Terry takes her out to dinner and then reaches across her chest, to put on her seatbelt—or so he says. Ruby knows better. The icing on the cake is Erin’s drug addiction, which Ruby spots when she finds her foster mom looking pretty “cooked” on the sofa, a needle sticking out of her arm.
All this yucky stuff understandably perturbs Ruby. And the film invites you to worry for her, giving you glimpses of Terry and Erin when they’re acting jumpy or seedy. He’s got some big money deal that’s gone south, and the kids have some large inheritance… the pieces are coming together. Finally scared enough to act, Ruby calls her dad’s lawyer for help, never suspecting that Mr. Begleiter (Bruce Dern, as creepy and snuffly as he’s ever been, and distinctly untrustworthy) might be in cahoots with the Glasses. Meanwhile, Rhett’s been bought off, now content to play with his cool new video games till all hours, oblivious to everything that’s going on. So, when Ruby musters up the gumption to talk to a counselor (Kathy Baker, in the movie for about four minutes), Rhett pretends everything’s fine, and so Ruby’s back at square one.
Blah blah blah. Ruby figures out that the adults who are supposed to look after her are useless at best, actually plotting to kill her at worst. At first glance, this makes a lot of sense as the basis for a teen horror movie: adults who aren’t your wonderful, always laughing, and permissive parents, are the enemy. Okay, so this simplifies the parent-child relationship, but so did Hansel and Gretel. But if the theme is primal, the symbols are hammering: the house, the knife that plays a crucial role at film’s end, Terry’s Ferrari, are all over-the-top, making it increasingly hard for Sobieski to do what she does well, which is to act like a real person in a real situation. It’s distressing to see her in this film, because you know she has better things to do with her time.
In the end, The Glass House can’t manage its own metaphors, and ends up tripping all over itself in order to give them a coherent context. What would make Terry so dastardly? Gangsters! He owes money to the wrong people and they show up occasionally, slamming him against walls (glass, of course) and murdering his associates in cold blood. And what would make Ruby sit still long enough for the movie to run at feature length? Ah, yes! Drug her, so that she lolls about in bed for days, like a dame in a 1940s noiry melodrama, until finally she pulls herself together just in time to foil the bad guys. By that time, however, you may be snoozing yourself.