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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 2, 2001

Movie Scene
'Life as a House' succumbs to gooey preachiness

By Christy Lemire
AP Entertainment Writer

"Life as a House," a New Line Cinema release, is shamelessly manipulative. Running time: 126 minutes. Rated R for language, sexuality and drug use.

When "Pay It Forward" was released last year, hopes and hype soared. The altruistic theme and cast of Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt and Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment just screamed, OSCAR!

Once it came out, critics and moviegoers alike rejected it for its gooey preachiness.

Looks like the same thing could happen to "Life as a House."

Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen both have Oscars, as does director-producer Irwin Winkler, who produced the 1976 best-picture winner, "Rocky." Winkler also produced best-picture nominees "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff" and "GoodFellas."

Co-star Kristin Scott Thomas was nominated for an Academy Award, and screenwriter Mark Andrus co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script for "As Good as It Gets."

And the story couldn't be more feel-good: A dying architect spends his final months building his dream house, and in the process, rebuilds the relationships in his life that have collapsed.

Sounds like a timely tale of redemption and reconciliation, right?


"Life as a House" is a shamelessly manipulative, melodramatic movie that happens to have some powerful performances, notably from Kline, whose presence, warmth and insight inevitably shine through.

Kline plays George Monroe, an architect who gets fired from his job of 20 years the same day he learns he's dying. He decides to tear down the shack where he lives on a breathtaking ocean cliff — which cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures during one brilliant sunset after another — and build the home he always wanted to build.

So the house is a metaphor for his life — and Winkler and Andrus hammer the point over and over. George whines about "25 years of hating what you live in — hating what you are." You can't get much clearer than that.

He recruits his multi-pierced, drug-addicted teen-age son, Sam (Hayden Christensen), to help in the effort, which he does only after pouting and screaming. Since his parents' divorce, Sam has lived with mother Robin (Thomas), her new husband (Jamey Sheridan) and their two sons.

Robin brings them gourmet lunches each day as they work, then joins in the project, as does George's next-door neighbor (Steenburgen) and her Lolita-esque teen daughter (Jena Malone), who flirts with Sam and George at the same time.

As the house goes up, George's health goes down, but he reconnects with everyone from whom he's isolated himself, and even rekindles the romantic spark he once shared with his ex-wife.

We don't learn what George is dying from until the very end, which is fine, because the illness itself isn't so important as the change it inspires in him. Kline said he lost 25 pounds from his already lean frame to play the part, and he authentically captures the emaciated look of a dying man.

The scenes between George and Robin — which begin with the friendly ribbing of people who know too much about each other and end with a surprising embrace — show an easy chemistry.

But the moments George shares with Sam, through fighting and tears, are especially powerful; they're the movie's real heart. Christensen is the 20-year-old actor who will play Anakin Skywalker in the next two "Star Wars" movies, and his performance here promises great things to come.