If it weren’t for the big screen level acting talent involved, “Life as a House” could have easily been one of those disease-of-the-week TV movies that hit the network airwaves with alarming frequency. But there’s only so much that an actor can do when the script follows the bittersweet formula right down to the wire.
The terminally ill character in “Life as a House” is secretly cancer-stricken architect George Monroe (Kevin Kline), who after losing his longtime job sets out to spend his remaining days tearing down his aging cliff-side Palos Verdes shack and building a dream home. As the title of the film suggest, with the building of the house also comes the reconstruction of his life. His brittle ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) suddenly becomes more open, and in spending more time with his father, so does their bitter, punkish 16-year-old son Sam (Hayden Christensen).
For the most part, “Life as a House” follows the traditional trajectory for these family dramas. Sam engages in reckless behavior and spends a lot of time yelling at his parents before the inevitable thaw that’s somewhat spurred on by growing feelings for a girl; George’s secret is revealed at a most inopportune moment, threatening the progress he’s made with his family; and so on. But about two-thirds of the way through, director Irwin Winkler and writer Mark Andrus take a brief but no less bizarre turn as George’s hilltop cul-de-sac starts to resemble that in “Knots Landing”: Robin, who has two children with current husband Peter (Jamey Sheridan), finds herself falling back into George’s arms; Colleen (Mary Steenburgen), George’s neighbor and mother to Sam’s friend Alyssa (Jena Malone), starts taking an unhealthy interest in her daughter’s sorta-boyfriend Josh (Ian Somerhalder).
When the out-of-nowhere sensationalism soon subsides, it’s both a blessing and a curse. The film comes back down to a place more in line with the otherwise earnest tone and performances, but in so doing it also settles back into tidy predictability, not to mention convenient contrivance, particularly in the resolution of a lingering quasi-feud between George and uptight neighbor David (Sam Robards). With nothing in the way of inspiration coming on either the writing or directing end, it’s up to the actors to maintain audience interest and emotional engagement, and two members of the cast rise to the occasion: Kline and Christensen. Their work occupies opposite ends of the acting spectrum; Christensen’s Sam is all volcanic adolescent angst while Kline’s George is far more sedate, strong yet calm. But both performances are impressively layered; Kline’s nuanced work convey the fear and sadness behind his deceptively dignified exterior, and Christensen makes the pain behind Sam’s rage clearly come across. His strong work here makes one all the more eager to see his upcoming take on Anakin Skywalker.
The two of them give complex performances in a film that steadfastly remains simplistic. Rebuild your house, rebuild your home, rebuild your family, rebuild your life is the rather obvious message of “Life as a House.” If only it were that simple.