New Line // 2001 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dezhda Mountz (Retired) // February 26th, 2002
A few weeks to live and one family to reunite.
Kevin Kline is a master actor. Whether tossing off comedic performances that become legendary (A Fish Called Wanda, In and Out), or conveying emotion to depths rarely seen in male actors (Sophie's Choice, The Ice Storm) he has made a name for himself as a serious actor who can play funny. In Life As A House, Kline goes for the tear ducts again, as a dying man who attempts to fulfill his one dream: building his ideal house.
George (Kline) is dying. He has a few months left. Just before he is diagnosed, he is fired from the architectural firm where he built models for 20 years. Estranged from his rebellious son Sam (Hayden Christensen) and at odds with his ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), he is alone in the world. George lives in a shack his father left him in a Laguna Beach, California suburb, and realizes the one thing he can do to leave a lasting legacy is to build his dream house. And Sam, a paint huffer, pot smoker, and pierced angry young man, is going to help him.
There's nothing wrong with tear-jerkers -- even predictable ones. Audiences are so trained on the basic paradigms of storytelling that we can almost always figure out what happens next. Sometimes, a tale told in the structure of oft-repeated stories is comforting. Sometimes, the result is really, really sappy. I found Life As A House watchable, but the acting couldn't save its predictability from being a major issue in its enjoyment.
The acting is the best thing about this picture. Kristin Scott Thomas' Robin is crisp, sometimes shrill, but you can always see the pain and frustration that haunts her. Kline is great, even though he milks the drama just a bit too much. Jena Malone, certainly one of the best actresses of her young generation, plays the next-door-neighbor flirt with bounce and warmth.
The nice surprise here is Hayden Christensen's performance. His sunny good looks darkened with hair dye and piercings, he is every parent's nightmare. The typical transformation from bad boy to loving son, however, is played with real passion, confusion, and intelligence. Now we know he can play dark and conflicted, just in time for him to step into the shoes of a young Darth Vader in the upcoming Star Wars prequel-sequel.
This is a film where the DVD features outshine the main attraction. The commentary, by screenwriter Mark Andrus, director Irwin Winkler, and producer Rob Cowan is full of details. The men discuss the emotional realities of the characters as well as the nuts and bolts of the film, including the actual building of the house, the casting, and the street that they built for the movie. The trio also comments on a handful of deleted scenes.
In the documentary "From the Ground Up" (10 min.), we see how the street on which George lives is built from scratch. A longer documentary "Character Building: Inside Life As A House" (24 min), focuses on the direction and acting, with some great behind-the-scenes footage including a scene where Kline batters all of his models that sit in the firm where he has just been fired. It's one of those shoot-it-once-or-forget-it-scenes where the stakes are high, a nice inclusion on this documentary.
The picture is a lovely 2.10:1 anamorphic widescreen, perfect for capturing the wide expanse of the new house and the gorgeous sea behind it. No edge enhancement was apparent, darkness and light were usually well-balanced, though darks started to blend in the frequent shack scenes. In that case, tones got a bit muddy. In the outside scenes -- which, according to director Winkler, were sometimes shot under threatening skies -- colors were lush and evocative. A beautifully shot movie with a transfer that does it relative justice.
The Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 sound was effectively mixed. There was some obvious post-production punching up of sound -- I could hear construction workers shouting over my shoulder yet clearly hear the foreground dialogue. There's a lot of elements here -- waves crashing, chainsaws buzzing, hammering, and whatnot -- and however deliberately balanced, it all blends well with the dialogue. Both the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 were comparable in quality, though the DTS 5.1 used speakers particularly effectively.
A man's dying wish brings those he loves closer together. Yawn. Seen it, heard it, been there before. The acting in Life As a House was a treat, and watching the house go up was fascinating, but I can do without the super-sappy dialogue and gooey plot line. At least the DVD had substantial extras. For that we can be thankful.
Good extras, a nice transfer -- mediocre movie. I give it three months to live.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.10:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Director / Screenwriter / Producer Commentary on Film and Deleted Scenes
* Two Documentaries: "Character Building: Inside Life As A House" and "From the Ground Up"
* Press Kit
* Official Site