Shaky Foundations

Review: Life as a House

Straining our credulity from the get-go, Life as a House opens with a shot of multimillion-dollar, California prime oceanfront real estate, upon which sits a decrepit shack that would surely lower property values in downtown Kabul. Inside the shack is a none-too-beautiful dreamer sporting nothing but a three-day stubble and a pair of dirty underwear. The stubbly man wakes up face to face with the sight of miles and miles of crashing surf and sky — surely one of the most magnificent views known to humankind — and promptly proceeds to piss on it. Literally.

It's not too difficult to figure out that George (the name of the stubbly guy, as it turns out, ably played by Kevin Kline) has an attitude problem. By the same token, it's not too tough to guess that this rumpled soul in distress is going to be the central figure in the story that's about to unfold.

Life as a House is actually a remake of the classic Japanese film Ikiru (also known as To Live) by Akira Kurosawa, although I'll try not to dwell too much on that since it's an unfair comparison — plus, it seems a bit pointless to go on and on about something that few people, regrettably, have probably seen. Suffice it to say that both movies are about what happens to a man's life when he suddenly finds out he's only got a tiny bit of it left.

After a brief introduction showing just how dreary and pathetically unsatisfying George's life is, the movie delivers the kick in the teeth that sets the main motor of Life as a House in motion: George is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given roughly four months to live. Cue the beginning of George's speed-of-light transformation from scraggly, listless curmudgeon to bright-eyed (but still unshaven) sweetheart savoring each and every one of life's little moments. The guy in Kurosawa's film decided to spend his remaining time converting a slum into a children's playground. Perhaps the makers of Life as a House found something more American in having George find peace by tearing down his shack and building himself a swanky home by the sea.

Those final four months that Kline's character has been granted coincide almost to the millisecond with the summer season, so George takes the opportunity to tie up some loose ends, starting with getting reacquainted with his estranged teenage son, Sam (Hayden Christensen). George enlists the boy's help in building the house, even though he's driven nuts by the fact that Sam is all rings and studs from nose to nipples, an alienated glue-sniffer who hates his dad almost as much as he adores Marilyn Manson. What ensues is predictable chaos, as father and son wind up having to share the same one-room living quarters while the house is under construction. Cohabitating with no privacy in the tiny, cramped space, it's a sure thing that all secrets will eventually be revealed as the pair go back and forth, butt heads, bare souls and eventually bond.

Director Irwin Winkler pays a lot of attention to the movie's surface but doesn't seem to have too much faith in the essence of his own story; he rarely allows the movie to take stock in itself, rarely sinks his teeth into the quiet, reflective moments that should have really made the film matter. Instead, the director's general tendency is to take a fairly ham-fisted approach to some potentially complex or otherwise sensitive elements, which occasionally threatens to reduce the film's crucial spiritual dimension to the level of cliche. There are times when Life as a House feels like it might have been better expressed on a greeting card.

Even more problematic: Winkler keeps diluting his film with pointless detours that seem desperate to offer a little something for everyone. One major bone that gets tossed our way is the wispy, bittersweet love story folded into George's better-late-than-never attempts to get back together with his ex-wife, Sam's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). It's a subplot that leads us by the nose to the inevitable money shot of the couple dancing, seaside, slow-motion and at sunset.

Then there's the odd little attempt to American Beauty-cize the film with a sporadic and halfhearted pro-nonconformist message and an array of quirky secondary characters from various social strata. There's even a series of wacky interludes straight out of Dennis the Menace in which George's playfully ill-mannered pooch drives the mean old next door neighbor crazy.

Most inexplicably of all, Life as a House eventually discards any semblance of thoughtfulness or narrative decorum and makes a bizarre, 11th hour stab at casting itself as a light sex farce in which several of the film's characters suddenly begin grinding away to comic effect — there's even a stereotypical randy housewife lusting after her daughter's hunky young boyfriend. It's possible that all this frantic, sexed-up silliness is the movie's clumsy attempt at saying something about the urge to live on and procreate in the face of death (manifested through everyone's proximity to the terminally ill George). That, however, is being pretty darned charitable. The sex mostly seems like a lame excuse for some cheap laughs. Somewhere in the middle of it all, George's kid finds himself a girl and instantly transforms from troubled teen to perfect, caring son. Even the studs in his face magically disappear.

By this time, Life as a House has lost most of what bite it began with; pretty much all of the mean old neighbors wind up chipping in to help our heroes build their dream house. George completes his transformation into a cross between village shaman and a human puppy dog, offering up sagely wisdom as he gathers up pretty much everybody in sight in sloppy, jumbo-size embraces. Then again, you too would probably be happy to see just about anybody if you were on that much morphine.

On the brighter side, none of this is as bad as it might have been. Kline's performance is a convincing enough anchor even when the movie's at its most shallow and transparently pandering (when the misguided sentimentality and over-eagerness to please begin to approach Patch Adams proportions). The oddest thing about this movie about a man confronting his own mortality is that it feels neither like an elegy nor an ode to life. Good intentions aside, Life as a House doesn't really seem too interested in celebrating life or a life, or even the poetic inevitability of death. What the movie really seems to be celebrating is itself and its ability to be all things to all people. And that's not nearly enough to warrant taking it seriously.

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