A review of  Life As A House” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: R for language, sexuality

Run Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

 

Kevin Kline gives a touching, tour-de-force performance as a dying man attempting to get his emotional house in order by building a house.

Kline is George Monroe, an architect of the Old School who’s being put out to pasture in the wake of computer models who do his work faster, cheaper, and with a minimum of emotion.  Salting the wound is the discovery of a life-threatening disease that offers George precious little time for a long-outstanding transformation. 

Appealing to his re-married ex, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), for guidance, George practically kidnaps his hostile teenage son Sam (Hayden Christensen) and declares that the summer vacation will be devoted to their tearing down and rebuilding of his dilapidated Pacific Coast beach cottage. Crises therapy through construction. Sam – bitter, rebellious, and self-destructive – wants no part of the plan or of his absentee Dad.  With nothing to lose, George initiates a Tough Love regime, refusing to succumb to Sam’s ugly taunts and suicide threats. Build, he says, and build they will.

Buried in my notes is a single, underlined word.  Sob.  This is an eminently moving story, in large part due to Kevin Kline’s earnest delivery of some poignant, but bordering-on-manipulative, dialogue.  George’s life-list of regrets is palpable, as is his cautious love for his sensation-challenged son and a rekindled fondness for his distant ex-wife. George and Sam engage in harsh personal warfare in order to find a common ground, and it hurts. The construction of that relationship, and of George’s dream house, inadvertently draws friends, family and strangers into its renovated orbit.  Priorities are reassessed and decaying spirits are restored. One half-step shy of schmaltzy, but relentlessly heartbreaking.

Christensen (on the cusp of Big as Anakin Skywalker in the next Star Wars installment, “Episode II – Attack of the Clones”) is a find – smoldering with resentment that masks his “inner child” (you’ll pardon the expression).   Scott Thomas is wonderful as a capable wife and mother who has it all, but isn’t sure that she wants it.  Mary Steenburgen and Jena Malone round out the ensemble cast as intimately involved mother/daughter neighbors who lend uncommon moral support. 

George’s journey begs an uncomfortable question.  Left with the knowledge of limited time to live – what do you do to make your mark on the world?  On your loved ones?  What do you take away to the next life?  The film is lushly photographed and well-paced - scattered with odd neighborhood perversities and amusing mini-dramas that lend foundation to George’s internal and external building.   (Think “American Beauty” with heart).  Go ahead, manipulate me – please.