Life as a House (2001)


By Susan Brown

House of Shame

Life as a House, the new film by director Irwin Winkler, is a pretty easy target and a fairly difficult sell, even amid the new sentimentalism following 11 September. Like American Beauty only cuter, it follows a man’s mid-life crisis and ensuing rebirth (in this case, precipitated by a terminal illness), as well as his reconnection with maladjusted son (Hayden Christensen, a.k.a. Darth Vader-to-be) and lonely ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Unfortunately, it only thinks it’s American Beauty, and instead, ends up being Regarding Henry, the 1991 male melodrama starring Harrison Ford (as a workaholic cad whose life is turned around by a near-fatal shooting and the love of a good woman). Like that film, Life as a House is unabashedly corny, punctuated by contrived obstacles and unsuccessful attempts at levity. Although many critics have accused Life as a House of being manipulative, I found it simply false, afraid of showcasing smaller, quiet moments of interaction between characters. Instead, it settles for cliches and bathos—the scene where his son discovers the truth about his dad’s mysterious back pain; the requisite dance sequence at sunset; etc.

The film’s initial focus is George (Kevin Kline) and his reaction to learning he has a disease-of-the-week, although “reaction” isn’t really the right word. In fact, he barely flinches, and then quickly undergoes one of those 180-degree personality transplants typical of Hollywood’s discomfort with unlikable characters. One moment, he is called a “miserable human being” by his supervisor, gets fired from his job at an architecture firm, and collapses in the street outside his office. The next moment, he’s gazing serenely into the sunset, having decided overnight to rebuild both his ramshackle house and his fractured relationship with his son (symbolism, anyone?). Seems like a fairly large undertaking in the estimated three to four months he has to live, but it’s nothing a montage sequence and a few helpful neighbors can’t cure.

Alas, Life as a House is not content with just one trauma; it serves up a veritable buffet of problems, beginning with George’s troubled son Sam. Forced to live with his father in the garage all summer while he helps to tear down one house and then build the next, he’s no longer able to indulge in huffing aerosol products and thus, must overcome his drug habit in 128 minutes, without the inconvenience of withdrawal symptoms. And Sam is not just a junkie: he’s also a sex hustler, sadomasochist, and maybe a closeted homosexual, or at least branded as such in the movie’s simplistic terms, by his eye makeup, multiple piercings, and the Marilyn Manson poster on his bedroom wall.

Needless to say, the film’s host of Big Issues (cancer; substance abuse; prostitution; sexual preference) creates a real conflict of interests. It even follows the break-up of Robin’s second marriage and the sexual exploits of George’s neighbor (Mary Steenburgen) with her daughter’s boyfriend. Any one of these issues would be sufficient fodder for a compelling film, but surely no single movie could successfully juggle so many genres—from romance to coming-of-age drama, tearjerker to “social issue film.” Similarly, the major characters end up competing for screen time, although this is clearly George’s story. As written, however, Sam is a far more complex and sympathetic character than George, who comes off as a rather generic martyr by comparison. Sadly, the film does little more than sketch out Sam’s teenage angst on the way to George’s inevitable demise.

It’s conceivable that Life as a House was once a riskier film—examining the relationship between father and son in greater depth, perhaps—that simply got plugged into the melodrama formula to avoid losing its presumably mainstream audience. After all, terminal illness films, spiced up by a romance, are less of a downer (and therefore easier to market) than stories about teen addiction and prostitution. That would help explain why Sam gradually removes his earrings, one by one, wipes the shadow from his eyes, and does his best impression of a “normal” teenager. Completing the transformation is his budding physical relationship with the neighborhood tramp-with-a-heart-of-gold, Alyssa (Jena Malone), resolving the ambiguity of his sexual preference in no uncertain terms.

While I’d like to applaud the film for introducing issues that are usually off-limits in all but independent productions and after-school specials, its inability to follow through is that much more disappointing, if entirely expected. Admittedly, it would be foolish to expect much originality to emerge from a stock melodrama, where the plot is always a variation on get sick, get saintly, find love, die. But what makes a good weepie work is sympathy toward doomed characters, their relationships leading to their ultimate redemption (I’m thinking of Stella Dallas or Terms of Endearment here). But without a realistic picture of Sam or George’s transformations, it’s hard to care one way or another about their losses and triumphs.

To be fair, Life as a House does have its heart in the right place. There are several well-written scenes showing George and Robin as they rekindle their romance, and Kline and Christensen manage to make even the most stomach-churning father-son dialogue somewhat affecting. For instance, when George confesses to Robin (as he has earlier in the film, to a nurse in the hospital) that he “hasn’t been touched in years,” the admission seems both understated and authentic. But such bittersweet moments are interspersed with would-be amusing obstacles in the form of one-dimensional characters, primarily, the spiteful neighbor who seeks revenge for George’s dog who won’t stop peeing on his lawn, and the city inspector who tries to halt construction because the house exceeds size regulations, the plumbing breaks housing codes, the sound violates noise ordinances ...

In light of Life as a House‘s attempts to be a serious drama, these devices are not just unfunny, they’re also insulting to the audience’s intelligence. Will George finish the house in time? Will his son come to love him? Will his ex-wife forgive him? What do you think? To paraphrase a metaphor from the film’s tag line, this house may look polished and full of life, but it’s still falling apart.

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