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The View From the Brink

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Dammit if I'm not going to have to write the same review all over again. Last week I praised the acting and production values in Iain Softley's K-PAX, all the while finding the script ineffectively plotted and ultimately evanescent. This week I'm afraid I have the same kind of mixed reaction to Irwin Winkler's Life As a House.

Written by Mark Andrus, Life As a House stars Kevin Kline as gloom-filled architect George Monroe. Ten years ago, when his son Sam (Hayden Christenden) was just 6, George's marriage fell apart, and George has found little to live for since, especially since his wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) remarried. Low energy and despondent, George has seen his career stall out. His private life is no better. George inherited a home on the edge of the Pacific bluffs, and when he and Robin were together, they planned someday to erect their dream house with sweeping windows and glass doors to capitalize on the dramatic view. A decade later, all alone, George still resides in the now dilapidated bungalow. The home is the eyesore of the neighborhood, and George is its reviled pariah. And then things get decisively worse. In one devastating day George loses his job and learns that he's dying with untreatable cancer.

Fighting desperately in a battle against time, George tries to rectify all the failings of a wasted life. He decides finally to build that dream house, and determines to use the construction project as a tool for reconciling with 16-year-old Sam, from whom he has become bitterly estranged. Sam is a mess. His face is pierced from eyebrow to chin. He takes drugs the way another teen might eat bag candy. And he's at war with the world, with his mother and stepdad Peter (Jamey Sheridan), with his teachers, and mostly with George. The film's narrative drive is built around the question of whether George can make peace with his son before the little time he has left runs out.

Kevin Kline is good as always, likable, funny, believably dissolute and irresponsible and, when appropriate, convincingly morose. Inevitably attractive and winning, Kristin Scott Thomas, though, is given too little to do and her character too little independent definition. Moreover, the back story about George and Robin's marriage is drawn too sketchily, the problems between them too vaguely delineated. When we see them together, we don't understand why they ever broke up.

The picture offers bracing, timeless advice about making every day count, and it displays a wise grasp of both the stubborn and frustratingly inexpressible nature of love. Remarkably enough, given the somber nature of George's circumstances, Life As a House also delivers moments of effective comedy. In this regard, however, Andrus' script tries too hard, stretches too far and stoops too low. This is not a movie that should resort to bodily function jokes for cheap laughs, but it does, shamelessly.

In terms of structure, the film is an odd and increasingly vexing mish mash. Around the core story of a father's struggle for reconciliation with his son revolve several subplots, some of which wither away like runners of grass grown out on concrete, others of which loom into view too late and, like something viewed from too close through a telescope, grow artificially large, intrusive and indistinct. We are never convinced by scenes depicting Sam as a male prostitute, providing services in parked cars to middle-aged businessmen. His financial motivation seems utterly contrived. At the end, Sam's prostitution is wielded as a gotcha solution to another subplot so underdeveloped and otherwise inessential we tsk with annoyance rather than smile with the intended delight.

About two-thirds the way through, Life As a House lurches briefly into an entirely different cinematic universe. In the early going we meet George's attractive next-door neighbor Coleen (Mary Steenburgen), her sexy daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone) who is a classmate of Sam's, and Alyssa's boyfriend Josh (Ian Somerhalder) who is Sam's manipulative pimp. Quickly we see that Sam likes Alyssa and that if the two of them can begin a romance, maybe Sam will drop his defense shields low enough that his father's love can get through too. All well and good. But when Josh suddenly becomes Coleen's boy toy, we feel like we've strayed from the land of The Ice Storm into the territory of 1980s sex comedies ruled by the likes of Porky's.

My biggest frustration with Life As a House, however, comes from Andrus and Winkler's commendable attempt to offer redemption to all its characters. The problem lies in lack of breathing room. Now Peter's a selfish jackass; now he's rueful, self-sacrificing and kind. Now Sam is alienated and mindlessly defiant; now he's gentle, tolerant and even wise beyond his years. Too much, too fast. In sum, Life As a House is hardly a film you detest, but one at some level you regret.

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