Starring: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Mary Steenburgen
Director: Irwin Winkler
If “Life as a House” had been released to US screens in 2002 rather than 2001, then this might have been the low-budget Oscar success at the expense of “In the Bedroom”. But with a delayed release around the world, “Life as a House” will probably notch a number of awards over the next twelve months anyway.
George Monroe (Kline – “Wild Wild West”, “In & Out”, “French Kiss”, “Dave”) is a forty-something architect, living in a dilapidated house over-looking the Pacific Ocean. His relationship with his ex-wife, Robin (Thomas – “Gosford Park”, “The English Patient”), and their drug-abusing, anti-social son, Sam (Christensen – “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones”, “The Virgin Suicides”), is the focus of what are to be his last few months alive. Recently diagnosed with cancer, George attempts to make amends for what he saw as his failings in the past, and recruits his son against his will to help him build his dream home.
Robin is going through a troubling time as well. Desperate to forge a relationship with Sam, struggling to keep her marriage to the uncaring Peter (Jamey Sheridan – TVs “Chicago Hope”) going, she now finds herself facing truths about her feelings for her ex-husband. Meanwhile, George’s neighbour and former lover, Colleen (Steenburgen – “I Am Sam”, “Nixon”, “Philadelphia”), finds herself at odds with her promiscuous daughter, Alyssa (Jena Malone – “Stepmom”, “Contact”), when she puts her wants and needs before those of her offspring.
What we have here is a study of dysfunctional-family America. Somehow, one man’s brave battle inspires those around him to remove themselves from the ruts they have found themselves in. At one point, George says “out of something bad, comes something good” and this remains the message throughout the movie.
The performances are nothing short of excellent. Kline is infectious as terminally-ill George, Thomas putting in another quality turn also. The big surprise might be the performance of Hayden “Anakin Skywalker” Christensen, who despite George Lucas’ best attempts proves that he can act rather stupendously away from the tiresome Star Wars franchise. Steenburgen too manages to make the most of her reduced role, upsetting the applecart at the wrong time but portraying someone who is not too old to learn and develop.
Winkler directs brilliantly once he gets the rather awkward first twenty minutes out of the way. I thought he mishandled the relating of Monroe’s illness by not actually revealing the nature of it to the audience until late on. That doesn’t have any relevance as it turns out, but it’s a little disorientating all the same. Certainly a big improvement from “The Net” and “At First Sight”.
Never difficult to watch, never dull – practically unmissable.