out of five
: 125 mins
Engaging, metaphor-laden, dysfunctional family drama with a strong
resemblance to American Beauty – it succeeds in (narrowly) avoiding the pitfalls of sentimental weepie-dom largely thanks to the quality of its performances.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first – Life As A House is a terrible title. They might just as well have called it ‘Spot the Metaphor’. Another alternative would have been ‘American Beauty 2’, because on the surface, they share a lot of similarities: a ‘dying’ man going through a mid-life crisis; dysfunctional families; a teenage girl with a crush on an older man; and the merest hint of homosexuality at the fringes of a sub-plot – they even both have bit-part roles for Scott Bakula.
However, Life As A House is an engaging film that succeeds on its own terms and manages to narrowly avoid the usual pitfalls of sentimentality thanks to a superb cast of likeable characters.
The film is set in Orange County in Southern California. Kevin Kline plays George, a divorced husband, estranged from his troubled teenage son (Hayden Christensen, soon to become mega-famous as the teenage Darth Vader in the new Star Wars movie).
He lives with his dog in a ramshackle old wooden house in a beautiful cliff-top position, where he enjoys winding up his more affluent neighbours, who also include Mary Steenburgen and her teenage daughter, Jena Malone (yet another actress whose name will be much more widely-known by the end of the year).
As the film opens Kline is fired from his job as a model house designer and, after smashing all the models with a baseball bat, he collapses.
Shortly afterwards, he discovers he has terminal cancer and he resolves to do two things before he dies: to build the house he’d always promised he’d build and to re-build his relationship with his angry, glue-sniffing punk of a son, whose opening scene of solvent abuse and auto-asphyxiation should really come with a subtitle that reads “Kids – don’t try this at home!”
Plot-wise, then, this is all extremely predictable stuff, with one plot
point in particular stretching credibility, despite being crowd-pleasing in the extreme. However, whereas in the hands of another director (think Ron Howard or Chris Columbus), this could have turned into a mess of syrupy sentimentality, Winkler keeps things fresh and interesting so that even when it’s obvious that you’re being manipulated, you don’t really mind all that much.
To that end, he is helped by a superb cast. Kline – always a likeable
presence - is as excellent as ever and he gets good support from Kristin Scott-Thomas and Mary Steenburgen. Jena Malone is also good, investing her ‘girl next door’ character with a slightly un-nerving confidence that works well in her more unusual scenes (though her “I thought we were just good friends” shower-sharing scene may provoke some unintentional laughter).
It’s Christensen who’s the standout though – he does enough here to banish any fears that he may have been all wrong for the Star Wars movie. It’s a relief, then, to find that he can act after all, and in fact he has already picked up a few acting nominations on the strength of his performance here.
In short, then, Life As A House is well worth seeing – it’s an engaging
drama with great performances and is also not without a sense of humour. Recommended.