Reviewed by GREG KING
While the title may not exactly sound riveting, Life As A House is a moving and beautifully written drama that explores a number of serious and important themes with surprising honesty and intelligence – themes like family, death, alienation, teenage angst, the inability to change or escape the past, and the healing power of love.
George (Kevin Kline) is an architect who is sacked from his job after 26 years, mainly because he is a dinosaur who refuses to use computer programs to design houses for clients, preferring to build hand crafted and detailed models. On that day he also discovers that he is suffering from a terminal cancer and only has four months to live. George determines to use the remaining time to atone for his past mistakes, primarily by healing the rift with his estranged teenage son Sam (Hayden Christensen, who also plays the teenage Anakin Skywalker in the new Star Wars installment Attack Of The Clones). Sam is deeply troubled 16 year old, resentful of the world around him, surly, rebellious, and experimenting with drugs, auto-asphyxiation, and casual sex for money.
George hopes to spend the summer months with Sam, tearing down his old cottage and building a new house as a legacy for his son. The act of building the house eventually brings the two closer together, but it also affects a number of other relationships within the local community, especially his neighbour (Mary Steenburgen) and her daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone). George’s ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to rediscover her feelings for him as well as questioning her current marriage to the seemingly cold, workaholic Peter (Jamey Sheridan, from the current Law And Order spin off Criminal Intent).
Beautifully observed and directed by Oscar winning producer turned director Irwin Winkler (The Net, etc), Life As A House slowly draws the audience into George’s quest and explores how his determined efforts slowly changes the world around him. The title itself is something of a metaphor for contemporary American life, as the house that George builds comes to reflect solid values, and the strength and endurance of family, the destruction of the past and a new beginning.
The sharp and witty script from Mark Addus (As Good As It gets, etc) balances some weighty themes and positive messages with humour and sentiment and easily wins audiences over. Life As A House is a sentimental and touching melodrama that pushes a number of emotional buttons without being overtly manipulative or contrived. Even composer Mark Isham displays some uncharacteristic restraint as his often saccharine score has been reined in.
This low-key but richly satisfying film boasts some fine performances from its wonderful ensemble cast. In one of his best roles for quite some time Kline delivers a restrained, sympathetic, rounded, subtly nuanced and sustained performance as the stubborn George. But the biggest revelation is the wonderfully complex and affecting performance from young Christensen, who displays a surprising maturity despite his relative inexperience before the cameras.