Even with vanity to build on, 'House' goes tumbling down

July 02, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Set this "House" afire! "House of Cards" is an irritatingly precious disease-of-the-week number, slightly inflated from the TV-scale of its ambitions by the presence of slumming movie stars and over-elaborate production.

The title structure expresses the movie's reality: It's whimsical, vivid, wondrously constructed, fragile and utterly phony. But worse, it's metaphorical drivel.

The House of Cards, which looks as if it were designed by Hieronymus Bosch and M. C. Escher and constructed out of tungsten-plated cards and industrial strength Krazy Glue by the graduating class at the Yale School of Architecture, is meant to represent the disease that afflicts young Sally Matthews, that wondrous magic state known so affectionately as "autism." And guess what: It can be "cured" by "understanding."

I don't know for a fact, but I rather suspect there's nothing terribly wonderful about autism. I suspect instead that to the parents of the afflicted children, it is a horror beyond description; and to the children themselves, it isn't a day at the beach. And I suspect that a movie that represents it as some kind of "higher wisdom" is going to tick them off, plenty.

As the movie has it, Kathleen Turner -- uh (how to say this delicately?), before she started working out twice a day, about 40 pounds before -- is a widowed engineer whose husband perished on a dig among Mayan ruins. Now, having returned to the family mansion in some picturesque Southern state, she sets about re-establishing normalcy. But her young daughter Sally (Asha Menina) suddenly begins to display a variety of bizarre symptoms.

For one thing, she suddenly displays both the guts and balance of a high-wire walker and goes for walks along the gutters of the three-story house, or climbs cranes. For another, if a single detail is out of place in her mother's wardrobe or in the arrangement of household items, she locks up in frozen horror and begins to bleat like a broken siren. And, for still another and because it's so darn photogenic, she suddenly creates the architectural marvel that I've already described.

The plot proceeds conventionally, along lines well trodden by other afflicted kid movies (what a depressing genre!) such as "Lorenzo's Oil." The medical establishment is represented by a slightly fatuous Tommy Lee Jones who, shorn of his trademark psycho dynamism, is much less interesting than director Michael Lessac thinks. Turner fights him for control over her own child.

Whenever the movie pace flags, Lessac has little Sally almost fall down go boom. Finally, to salvage an almost incomprehensible situation with a movie quick-fix, he comes up with the idea of having Turner computer-access some "virtual reality" work-ups of Sally's structure, so as to see the world as she sees it and comprehend the mechanisms of her damaged mind.

Would that it were so easy! "Lorenzo's Oil" at least had the guts to show the disease as a slow and brutal killer of the childish spirit and not to gloss over the tyranny it inflicted on the innocent; Like it or hate it, you had to respect it. "House of Cards" merits no such grudging admiration; the disease it evokes isn't autism but vanity.

'House of Cards'

Starring Kathleen Turner and Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by Michael Lessac

Released by Miramax.

Rated PG-13

... **

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