Though it plays like a TV movie of the week and veers into being a dangerously plagiaristic "American Beauty" rip-off, "Life As A House" (IMDb listing) has a certain vulnerability to it I wasn't expecting. Taking on the tough subjects of parenting and growing pains, "Life" is resoundingly strong in its convictions that a little attention to your own life is what you need to be happy. As cliched as it might sound, "Life" makes a good case for this life-affirming argument through some downright flawless acting and a screenplay that doesn't pull as many punches as you might imagine.
George (Kevin Kline) is an architect who has just been fired from his job of 30 years. Living alone in a dilapidated house, which is located in a posh Californian neighborhood, George is forced to reassess his life when he is informed that cancer will soon end it. Ready to tear down his house to replace it with a new one, George goes to his ex-wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) with a request that his estranged son Sam (Hayden Christensen) join him for the summer to help with the construction. Sam, a goth punk who dabbles in prostitution, violently rejects any of George's advances proclaiming it's too late for a father figure to be involved in his life. George soon coaxes the brighter side out of Sam, and the two embark on a summer of building that attempts to heal the riffs George has formed in his relationship with his son, his ex-wife and his own father, whom he hated with every fiber of his body.
Not the stuff of legendary cinema, I know. However, director Irwin Winkler doesn't define "Life As A House" by its conventions, but more by its ambitions. There is an undercurrent of parental rage that simmers beneath the well-known crust of "Life." It's an undercurrent that boils over occasionally with surprising results. I'll admit that George and Sam's relationship proceeds with too many narrative detours, but the animosity that Sam feels for his father seems real, and George's feelings for his own father even more so. Chalk that up to the script, the actors or even the director, but the emotional honesty of the characters is what means the most to the eventual success of "Life As A House."
And as the core of the film, you would not believe the wonders and the heights Kevin Kline reaches with his performance. Yes, it's Kevin Kline for goodness sake. The man has won Oscars and critical lauds for decades now. I just don't recall him ever finding a character so completely as he does in "Life." There is not one false moment in his entire performance. Even when the script finds the occasional story rut, Kline manages to keep his chin up and search within to deliver his best work in some time. His George is not only regretful, angry and suffering, but he is a man slowly becoming aware of patterns in his own son that can be fixed with a little TLC. Kline avoids the maudlin answers and keeps the acting honest and direct. This is the type of acting you pray for with a film like this--acting that transcends cliches and predictability.
In the supporting role of the son, Hayden Christensen makes a nice starring debut here. Of course all eyes will be on him next summer as he tackles the role of Anakin Skywalker in "Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones," so to get a chance to look at his acting before the lightsabers and Obi-Wan come calling is noteworthy. Christensen is a raw talent who feels every emotional moment in a strangely Brando-ish way. His performance in "House" matches Kline's beat for beat, yet he lacks the urgency that Kline has perfected over the years. I look forward to seeing what Hayden can do in the future beyond "Star Wars."
When I mention that the picture veers into "American Beauty" territory, I mean it. There is some forced nonsense featuring a teenage vixen (Jena Malone) who not-too-discreetly tries to come on to George while also trying to bed Sam. There is also a subplot featuring Mary Steenburgen as a lonely housewife who carries on an affair with said vixen/daughter's boyfriend. These little asides (and thank God they are little) don't do too much damage to the overall story, but they are definitely out of place in the overall structure of the film. I'm a little surprised director Irwin Winkler couldn't have spotted these frivolous subplots and deleted them, for his film is much stronger without them.
No doubt about it, "Life As A House" packs an emotional wallop, but never feels artificial. The characters seem authentic, as do their demons. It's rare to have a picture deal with the acknowledged failure of fatherhood as directly as this. Couple that with Kline's performance and you have something unquestionably worth your time.
Filmfodder Grade: B+