Shuffled around amid a series of very pretty split screens and unmoored voiceovers, Alex and Kate must create a relationship out of very contrived air.
She's that great mix of being prepared and being in the moment.
--Keanu Reeves on Sandy Bullock, Vanity Fair (July 2006)
Early in The Lake House, a city bus careens across the screen, causing some havoc. You might wonder, as you watch this brief but resonant moment, whether the folks who colluded to reteam Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in a movie with a bus snickered a little snick at the thought of it. You might also wonder whether these same folks thought past that little bit of a premise, for the film that follows is gauzily romantic and increasingly incoherent.
While incoherent isn't necessarily bad, in this case, Kate (Bullock) and Alex (Reeves) don't have much else as a ground. Shuffled around amid a series of very pretty split screens and unmoored voiceovers, they must create a relationship out of very contrived air. The basic story, drawn from the Korean movie, Il Mare (2000), has two lovers communicating across the separate moments they inhabit: He's an architect turned contractor (in part to spite his famous architect father Simon, played by stately Christopher Plummer), who has just moved into the titular house. She's a doctor who's just moved out. He's living in 2004 and she's in 2006. She leaves a letter about how much she loves the house. A few days later, he leaves one for her -- both use the lake house mailbox, which turns out to be magic, allowing them to trade notes in a seeming present, even though they're existing in separate times.
Directed by Alejandro Agresti (who made the less self-consciously lyrical Valentín in 2002), the film is occasionally charming, even when it doesn't make sense. One sequence has Kate and Alex leaving notes for one another as the mailbox's red flag pops up and down in their own moments, signaling the letters traveling through unknowable dimensions. Both participants plainly seek ways beyond their own fraught lives: Kate's feeling inundated at her new urban hospital job, especially depressed when she witnesses a bus accident, after which a pedestrian dies in her arms. When she tears up in the doctors' lounge, her supervisor Ann (the wondrous and underused Shoreh Aghdashloo) advises her to spend time "as far away from this place as you can" (this turns out to be the lake house, glass-walled and literally in the lake, on stilts). Insistently melancholy in soft focus, Kate tends to look like she's posing for one of SNL's "Deep Thoughts" segments.
For his part, Alex is tied up in a knotty mess with Simon, who long ago abandoned the family (Alex has a brother, in place mostly to furnish crucial information to Kate late in the movie), while swept up in his own selfishness and celebrity. Devoting himself to a hard-hatted career that apparently annoys his dad, Alex finds an outlet for his poetic, abstract soul in the relationship with Kate. He figures out the time thing fairly soon, and so endeavors to make a connection in real, or rather, shared time, tracking down the 2004 Kate, even though she has no idea who he is then, and is engaged to the supercilious, control-freaky Morgan (Dylan Walsh). (It goes without saying that this is a mismatch, though it's surely odd that she's so unable to see it.)
This brief meeting, on Kate's 2004 birthday, leads to one of those thudding movie moments designed to be profound and allusive. Kate tells Alex she loves Jane Austen's Persuasion (a book that is, she notes, about waiting), they look deeply into one another's eyes and share a camera-swirling kiss. And then: pffft. Though he knows who she is, Alex doesn't pursue Kate, leaving her to be unhappy with Morgan, as Alex is unhappy with himself. This mirroring structure, as Kate and Alex continue to exchange letters across two years, makes for an unwieldy narrative and some lovely images, as they write to one another from park benches that appear in split screens with an invisible line between them; different passers-by fade into air as they near the line.
More often, however, the splitting/connecting devices are more prosaic, as when Kate and Alex occupy conventional split screens but talk as if having a conversation; these conversations ostensibly occur in letters that would need to be sent as half-sentences and thoughts waiting to be completed by the other writer. The sheer awkwardness of this machinery is distracting, as is the whole shaking-up-the-universe dilemma posed repeatedly by time-traveling narratives: a changed past brings on a changed future (see: The Butterfly Effect or the old Star Trek episode, "City on the Edge of Tomorrow"). When Kate and Alex start trying to engineer events in order to set up a meeting in her time, the temporal logic pretty much falls apart.
Of course, logic isn't usually the point in romance. When Alex wonders why Kate would like Persuasion, a book about waiting that ends sadly, the not-yet-couple shares a genuine-seeming moment of recognition: what they're doing, both in their own spaces and times, doesn't make sense. Neither does the film's completely feeble use of Aghdashloo, educed to advising her young colleague in the most mundane ways (see above). When they meet for drinks in a gloomy bar scene (Anna's daughter has left for college, Kate's in love with a man she believes she can never meet), Anna observes, dryly, "He must write one hell of a letter" to warrant so much mooning. The women laugh together, forlornly. And for a second, the movie is less lugubrious, more familiar.
But only for a second. For all its impressionistic efforts, The Lake House doesn't imagine a time or space beyond romantic conventions. And you're left waiting.