Life as a House

| November 5, 2001

Sure to finish high on my list of 2001 bests/favorites, Life As A House is outstanding entertainment. A drama with comedic elements, it brings to mind Oscar winner, American Beauty (1999), and it’s almost that good. Speaking of Oscars, I’ll be shocked of it doesn’t get at least two nominations, best actor and best cinematography, and personally, I’d add several others.
At the start of the film, we meet unhappy and unfocused forty-something architect, George (Kevin Kline), who lives in a shack surrounded by beautiful homes in a spectacular Southern California oceanfront community. In short order, he is fired from his job, and learns that has only a few months to live. He decides to keep his cancer a secret from his ex-wife, Robin (Kristen Scott Thomas), and their rebellious teenage son, Sam (Hayden Christensen). The balance of the film deals with George’s efforts to replace the shack with a wonderful new house that he designed years earlier, and to repair/restore his relationships with these two people that he loves. Various sub-plots deal with George’s neighbors, a varied and colorful group, and these interactions add rich texture to the central storyline.
The script was written by Mark Andrus who received an Oscar nomination for co-writing As Good As It Gets (1997) which was only his second film. This is his third and I eagerly anticipate his already filmed number 4, The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). Co-producer/director Irwin Winkler has produced about 40 previous films and directed only 4 of them. As a producer his output has ranged from the wretched (Busting – 1974 and Valentino – 1977) to the memorable (New York, New York – 1977 and The Right Stuff – 1984) along with Raging Bull (1980) and all 5 of the Rocky films. As for his previous directorial stints, I found 3 of them adequate/competent and the forth, Night And The City (1992) to be one of the worst 100 films I’ve ever seen. Nothing he directed before Life As A House prepared me for his excellent work here.
This may be the best performance of Oscar winner, Kevin Kline’s varied and distinguished career. His Oscar came from his supporting role in A Fish Called Wanda (1988), his only nomination so far. Among my other favorite films in which he appeared: Sophie’s Choice (1982), The Big Chill (1983), Dave (1993), French Kiss (1995). While I enjoyed his performance in what is one of his biggest boxoffice successes, In And Out (1997), I’m not much of a fan of the film. Further, I suggest avoiding Wild, Wild West (1999), a terrible film in which he is at his worst.
I’ve had varying reactions to British born Kristen Scott Thomas in the past, but think she is wonderful here. I liked her Oscar nominated performance as Katharine in The English Patient (1996), but prefer her work here as an American and was surprised at her warmth in this part. The first time she caught my attention was her small part in Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994). On the other hand, although I saw it, I was too stunned to realize that it was Ms. Thomas co-starring with Prince in Under The Cherry Moon (1986). She was nominated for a Razzie as worst new star that year. Fortunately for us, casting directors ignored that one!
I was disappointed when it was announced that George Lucas had cast a little known Canadian, Hayden Christensen, as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader for Episode II (2002) and Episode III (2005) in his Star Wars series. Mr. Christensen’s work here has changed my mind.
Other cast members are too good to ignore. Oscar winning supporting actress, Mary Steenburgen (Melvin And Howard – 1980) is excellent in support here as Coleen, George’s next door neighbor. In a brief nude scene, the fifty-something year old shows that she is in outstanding shape. Equally effective and equally attractive as her daughter, Alyssa, Jena Malone, reminds me of Katie Holmes, Julia Styles and Leelee Sobieski. Watch for Ms. Malone co-starring with Jodie Foster in The Dangerous Lives Of Alter Boys (2002). Louisiana native, Ian Somerhalder plays the neighborhood bad boy, Josh, and has already been cast in The Rules Of Attraction (2002). I was also impressed with Scott Bacula, Sam Robarts, Jamey Sheridan, and Sandra Nelson as a nurse.
Budapest (Hungary) native, Vilmos Zsigmond, is one of the top cinematographers of all time. Known for his use of natural light and vivid color palette, I’d go to see a film just because I knew that he had photographed it. He is already an Oscar winner for his shared work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and deserves another this time. Composer Mark Isham has scored over 70 films including A River Runs Through It (1992) for which he received his one Oscar nomination, so far.
Editing, production design, art direction, set decoration, and costume design are all worth of award consideration.
Life As A House is rated R by the MPAA and it’s running time is 124 minutes. It opened in very limited North American release on October 26, 2001 then expands in early November, 2001. The “R” rating is fitting. How nice (and rare) it is to get a film meant for adults, due to its subject matter, and treatment of that material. Not every single film should have to be appropriate for viewers that aren’t yet 17 even if boxoffice results might be somewhat reduced. The norm these days is to make films than can squeak by with a PG-17 rating or for distributors to cut completed films to pass the test for that less restrictive rating regardless of what it does to the film’s integrity. Some things in any society should be just for adults and I’m convinced that Life As A House was conceived with that in mind. While I think many films are too long these days, I wouldn’t cut a minute from this one. My guess is that the finished version closely follows the written script and the running time comes close to what it was intended to be. The distributor, New Line, made the wise and slightly dangerous decision to do the right thing with a “platform” release. That is, rather than opening in 3000 auditoriums all over the continent, a very limited number of carefully selected theatres, in only a few cities, were chosen. I say “dangerous” because, if a film doesn’t do well in its early runs, exhibitors become reluctant to provide support for later openings. Fortunately, early engagements have done well this time.
My favorite sequence in the film is featured in the one sheet and early ads. (The distribution company, New Line, nailed the campaign with that look.) It shows George and Robin waltzing in the half finished house overlooking the Pacific Ocean at sunset. The music is Joni Mitchell singing her composition, Both Sides Now. What a lovely moment!
Generally, reviews have not been very good. Among the favorable, however, are Gene Shalit (The Today Show), Mike Clark (USA Today),
Kevin Thomas (The Los Angeles Times), Molly Haskell (The New York Times), and Richard Roeper (Ebert and Roeper At The Movies). The negative reviews have complained that it is sentimental, schmaltz, predictable, and/or manipulative. BULLSHIT. I don’t know when it became a bad thing for a film to evoke emotion and to actually resolve situations brought forth. I was delighted to be moved and to have resolution of major plot points.

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