You won’t miss the point of Life as a House, since the filmmakers have helpfully explained the metaphor in the title. It’s a schematic movie, with each idea laid out neatly and unambiguously. The film opens with the camera craning through a posh seaside neighborhood, framing each gorgeous estate in turn before settling on a decrepit shack sitting incongruously between the two most ostentatious homes. (This would be the House.) We crane in further to find a haggard Kevin Kline crawling out of bed and walking outside in his tighty whities to urinate off his backyard cliff into the ocean. (And this, of course, would be the Life.)
It’s a lovely shot, but it’s staged for its pictorial beauty rather than for the story. Kline is posed so discretely as he lets loose – back to the camera, dwarfed by the surrounding houses – that it only becomes clear what he’s doing when the neighbor’s randy daughter (Jena Malone) is shown gaping approvingly from her window.
This tentative, awkward handling of what could have been a funny scene sets the tone for the film. Director Irwin Winkler always opts for caution and good taste, especially when Mark Andrus’ script shrugs off its earnestness and delivers a good joke or a surprising moment of anger. There are very fine moments throughout the film, but they have to fight through the bland sincerity of the direction, and consequently always feel muzzled.
Kline plays George, a middle-aged architect’s model maker who hates what’s become of his life. Divorced for ten years, estranged from his raging, drugged Goth son Sam (Hayden Christensen), living in the squalid little house his despised father left him, George lacks even the sarcastic bile of Kevin Spacey’s suburban loser in American Beauty. He gave up his plans to replace the shack with a house of his own design years ago, and stays on instead of cashing out (this is obviously prime real estate) mainly to annoy his snobbish neighbors.
When George loses his job and learns that he’s dying on the same day, he decides that the time has finally come to build that house. With only months to live, it’s his last chance to make something of himself, and he starts by forcing Sam to spend the summer helping him.
At its best, the film overcomes the melodrama inherent in the scenario. (It helps that George doesn’t tell anyone that he’s sick – the drama thus centers on his attempts to reach Sam rather on his family coming to terms with his impending death.) Kline dodges Winkler’s smothering sentimentality by underplaying the pathos, aiming for laughs and bemused anger rather than sympathy. For an actor who tends towards bluster (Kline’s best work – A Fish Called Wanda – is his most outrageous), it’s a subtle, amusing performance. Christensen has a more difficult task: from his first appearance (blue-haired, studded with piercings, snarling in front of a Marilyn Manson poster), it’s clear that he’s there to be saved by George. Worse, there’s a subplot involving a teenaged pimp – don’t ask – so ridiculous that he has nothing to fall back on but the surly stammers that have served as instant teen alienation since Rebel Without a Cause. With all these obstacles, it’s that much more impressive that he manages as much good work as he does; his arguments with George catch both his resentment and his wounded vulnerability so well that his inevitable turnaround feels perfectly natural.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who did such miraculously intuitive work in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, makes every shot shimmer. The film is bathed in rich, luxurious sunlight and composed to show off the tony art design. The calendar art quality of the images becomes a problem, though. In this film about death and overcoming anger, the airless perfection of the shooting starts to look like a photo spread in Metropolitan Home. ("Coastal comfort for the newly dying," perhaps.) Nothing comes of this friction; the glossy beauty is less ironic than inappropriate.
Life as a House is a very well-made film, but the fussy perfectionism of its makers all but snuffs the life out of it. The performers have invested the movie with more urgency than the director seems comfortable with. Shards of real emotion and wit keep puncturing the meticulous surface, only to be stifled. The film survives its makers, but just barely.