Storyline is hard to nail down

Review: It's easy to like Kevin Kline, but in `Life as a House,' it would be better if he burned down the house.

November 02, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Life as a House mounts a brutally insensitive attack on its audience's sensitivities.

Like As Good as it Gets, which the screenwriter, Mark Andrus, also had a hand in, this film may win applause for being "uplifting" and "true to life" because it balances emotional graft with goofiness and willful eccentricity.

Kevin Kline, playing an architect with terminal cancer, isn't the coarse crowd-pleaser Jack Nicholson was as a misanthropic writer. But audiences respond to Kline's conviction to carry the story, even if they wisely reject the story itself, which is about a man redeeming himself and rescuing his family while facing down death. Almost from the start, this film stops making sense -- but not in a good, Talking Heads way. I kept wishing Kline and the moviemakers were Burning Down the House, not building it.

The movie begins with Kline urinating in back of his inherited shack in a swank Southern California neighborhood on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The teen-age girl next door (Jena Malone) is delighted, but her mom (Mary Steenburgen), whom he once dated, says she's horrified. Meanwhile, in another part of paradise, his Goth son (Hayden Christensen) attempts autoerotic asphyxiation in the home of Kline's oblivious ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), her even more oblivious second husband (Jamey Sheridan), and their inexplicably charming children.

And these incidents are just the tone-setters! Things don't go over-the-top of over-the-top until Kline gets fired from his architecture firm. He shatters to bits nearly all the painstaking models he crafted over the course of 20 years, only to faint on the one model he's saved. True to screenwriter Andrus' unerring instinct for cheap existential melodrama, that's when Kline learns he has cancer.

A nonconformist dad, an alienated son, an ex-wife who's opted for an emotionally unengaged rich guy. Have the ingredients for this kind of pseudo-hip comedy-drama changed since the days of, say, A Thousand Clowns? Almost all of this film's characters are clowns, but none of them are funny.

Kline's architect decides the one way to accomplish something before he dies is to turn his shack into a dream chalet. And the one way he can save part of his family life is to turn his son into his live-in, go-to guy for the project. Kline's own father was competitive and demeaning toward him, so Kline is determined to stop the cycle of insults. Inconsistent with this theme but consistent with the movie's pandering to upper-class baby boomers, Kline insists that Christensen remove his pierced jewelry.

Despite a clan history of dysfunction and outright disaster, the movie hard-sells the message that one down-to-earth, solid achievement shared with friends and family can make up for a misspent life. But it also peddles the secondary message that anything-goes behavior is OK as long as it's conducted between consenting adults -- or consenting teen-agers -- or one consenting teen-ager and one consenting adult.

Andrus' "originality" lies in treating peculiar behavior as if it were everyday, and Irwin Winkler's whole directorial style (as in his Oliver Sacks travesty, At First Sight) is to bring this weirdness his own heartfelt banality. So when Christensen showers in Malone and Steenburgen's house, Malone just walks in, strips, and shares the spray with him. She wants to know if he is gay; she believes he is because he's been turning homosexual tricks for Malone's teen-pimp boyfriend. And guess which member of the Malone-Steenburgen household ends up making love to the pimp? I'd offer "Age before beauty" as a clue, except Steenburgen looks pretty darn great.

Of course, Scott Thomas comes by with her kids because Christensen cleans up nicely and starts talking to her, and she begins to fall in love with Kline again. Even though he sees that happening, Kline doesn't tell her that he's dying until she's already given up on her second husband. Not to worry -- Andrus and Winkler won't leave anyone empty-handed.

Empty-headed, yes.

Life as a House

Starring Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas

Directed by Irwin Winkler

Rated PG-13

Released by New Line Cinema

Running time 124 minutes

Sun score *

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