Life As A House
A Film by Irwin Winkler, written by Mark Andrus
The latest film from producer/director Irwin Winkler, whose earlier work includes At First Sight (1999) and the remake of the noir classic Night And the City (1992), is based on an interesting metaphorical foundation: the notion that people's houses somehow represent the structure of their lives. It is a captivating idea, with far-reaching ramifications. As played out here, it is, unfortunately, less interestingly examined than it might have been.
The story revolves around the life of George Monroe (Kevin Kline) a man at mid-life, employed as a model-maker in a high-powered architectural firm. George is a craftsman - plodding but precise - in a high-tech world. Early in the film he has a confrontation with his employer that leads to his losing his job amidst an outburst of long-suppressed anger. In the aftermath, he suffers a physical collapse, and winds up in the hospital, where he discovers he has terminal cancer.
The stage is set for high drama - a man confronting his mortality, the things done and undone in his life. The film begins to successfully explore this theme. Unfortunately screen-writer Mark Andrus (best known for co-writing the glib and unsatisfying As Good As It Gets) fails to stay focused on this simple but profound situation, and ends up dragging in issues and characters that confuse and distract from the primary path of the story.
Monroe's plan for the last months of his life is to finally build the house he has been dreaming about all his life. He wants to tear down the shabby cottage (on an exquisite ocean-front lot) left to him by his abusive, alcoholic father, and put up the Japanese-style post-and-beam home he has been building piece by piece, like an enormous jig-saw puzzle, over the years. In the process, he hopes to reclaim a relationship with his own now-teen-aged son, Sam (Hayden Christiansen) from whom both he and his ex-wife have become estranged.
And it is here that Andrus' writing begins to undermine the engrossing character study that might have been. It's not enough for Sam to be an adolescent - he has to be a drug-taker; he has to be so deeply alienated from all the adults around him that it verges on the pathological; and he has to be a vague sort of "goth," with multiple piercings and eye makeup. But that's still not enough - he has to be toying with male prostitution, pimped for by one of his high-school friends! To explore a character this complicated, with this many issues, a two hour movie is not going to be nearly enough - and Sam is only one of half-a-dozen complex characters Andrus introduces into the movie.
The screenwriter just doesn't seem to be able to resist piling it on. There's GeorgeÕs ex-wife, Robin (Kristen Scott-Thomas), involved in an emotionally-cold marriage whose own quiet crisis is exacerbated by George's eccentric behavior and a rekindling of their feelings for one another. There's George's lonely next-door neighbor, Colleen (Mary Steenbergen) - who he used to date when his marriage first broke up- and her sexually precocious teen-aged daughter, Alyssa (Jena Malone). There's Colleen's affair with her daughter's teen-age friend Jason, who also happens to be the kid who was pimping for Sam. There's the pretentious businessman across the street who fights a running battle with George and his trespassing dog. And there's more... With this wealth of material, a soap opera could keep running for decades.
It's all just too much. As a result of trying to squeeze so much detail, so much emotional turmoil into less than two hours, character development gets shortchanged. Moments that could be deeply moving are lost in the welter of story-lines and complicated relationships. Plot points get tossed in that simply don't seem to fit, or have to be communicated so quickly that they seem contrived or make no sense at all - such as the relationship between the neighbor and her teenaged boy-toy, and the "instant" relationship that flowers between Sam and the neighborÕs daughter.
Fortunately for the film, at its heart is the performance of Kevin Kline. With his typically-focused energy and deep commitment to his character, Kline manages to invest George with an emotional reality that transcends the sloppiness of both plot and dialogue. There are two or three lines that in any less-skilled hands would be the stuff of parody - yet Kline manages to make them pay off emotionally - and in a big way.
And his work rubs off onto the other performers. Christiansen, who is just starting his acting career, is stiff and two-dimensional in his early scenes - but once he and Kline come face to face, there is an emotional rawness and authenticity to what grows up painfully between them. In the end, Christiansen carries his end of the film with conviction and confidence and like Kline, transcends the melodramatic lapses in the dialogue by sheer emotional force.
Kristen Scott-Thomas, who has said she was attracted to the role by the opportunity to work with Kline, is also clearly inspired by his energy. In the scenes she shares with Kline her character is a different person than she is in scenes without him. This is appropriate to the plot, but it goes beyond that.
The sense of nostalgia, of regret, of affection and desire, of deep love and of an abiding sense of connection that the two actors create is moving. The delicacy and precision with which they evince these emotions is clearly the product of two actors working together with tremendous creative freedom, and the profound trust in each other's sincerity and skill on which such freedom is based. Those scenes are a joy to watch.
Unfortunately, there are moments when Kline isn't on screen, and it is in those moments that the story suffers. While he is able to lift the story above its material basis, without his help the others stumble around in silly, gratuitous exercises in bad melodrama. Attempts at comedy fall flat, and the effort to build a "love-interest" into the plot for Sam is so contrived that it feels a bit embarrassing - as if he is being fixed up with a hooker.
If this film had been held to - or edited back to - its essence - a story about a man struggling to regain a sense of integrity, love and dignity in the presence of those who matter most to him, at the end of his life - it would have had plenty of emotional power to fill a couple of very thoughtful and moving hours. Over-wrought as it is by Andrus, and without the restraining hand of director Winkler that ought to have trimmed some of the writerÕs excesses, this spare center is somewhat spoiled and cheapened by the profusion of confusing, unnecessary and distracting sub-plots and characters.
Director Winkler gets mixed grades here. This is a highly polished, technically proficient production. The actors - especially the leads - are given enough room to move that they get more out of the material than it offers at face value. Yet the film lacks overall cohesion and the deep commitment to sticking with the difficult subject matter that might have made it a much more powerful film. It is fragmented by a over-abundance of story lines and character details and sabotaged by adherence to an aesthetic that is out of sync with the subject matter.
The film is a little damaged by its sometimes excessive good looks. The gritty reality of the themes - death, reconciliation, the difficulty of communication about the most important things within relationships - is often overshadowed by the beauty of the sets and settings. The perfection casts a pall of movie-making artifice over the whole film. There are several post-card shots of the house and the ocean, for instance - beautiful in themselves, but a distraction from the painful emotional encounters which are the real core of the film.
The camera work is excellent. There is some wonderful use of the house, in each of its stages of de-construction and reconstruction, as a barrier that hides the action from the camera; frames certain characters and sequences; or isolates or unites the characters. But here again, the rough, intimate, intense tone of the issues involved is sometimes subverted by the aesthetic sense and artifice of the framing and camera movement. There is a slickness to the highly-polished and professional work that enhances a sense of artificiality and distances the viewer from a visceral response to the material.
The music doesn't help much either. Although it is not as bombastic as it might have been, - some of it is quite effective and appropriate - it is often mildly intrusive, seeking to underscore the action in a manipulative way. This is often a difficult line to draw, and the music director here, Mark Isham, has obviously made an effort to restrain himself, but it was not entirely successful. If the emotional tone at some of the points where the music intrudes had been conveyed more successfully, then the music would certainly have seemed less like an attempt to direct audience feelings.
This film has much to recommend it - above all the fine performances of Kline, Scott-Thomas and Christiansen. If the filmmakers had been content to allow these fine actors to explore the basic premise - given the extraordinary power of some of the scenes - they might have made a movie of enduring stature. Unfortunately, florid writing and an apparent taste for melodrama intrude, and the film founders on directionless sub-plots, a plethora of incidental issues, and painful clichˇs.
That's my take on it. What's yours?