Built from Used Parts
‘Life as a House’ -- A Derivative Repeat
Directed by Irwin Winkler
Written by Mark Andrus
Starring Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Hayden Christensen
The success of a movie often depends on the writer’s intent in creating it. For example, though Dude Where’s My Car is probably one of the dumbest movies ever made, it never aspired to be much more than the source of a new drinking game. In that sense, it was quite the success. On the other hand, with Life as a House, writer Mark Andrus tries to create an inspiring, life-changing story about a dying man’s last attempt to rectify his life. Unfortunately, the result falls short of his original specs, as the movie relies too heavily on recycled material from previous movies and not enough on original character development.
The movie is about George (Kevin Kline), an aging, divorced architect who discovers in a single day that he has been fired from his job of 20 years and that he is dying of some unexplained form of cancer.
This might make for a pretty bad day, but George immediately decides to use the four months he has to live to rebuild a relationship with his estranged and troubled teenage son Sam (Hayden Christensen). Here enters the overly abused metaphor of George’s dilapidated shack, which he has meant to tear down and rebuild into a dream house for most of his life. With the reluctant help of his son, as well as the help of a medley of odd, unnecessary characters, the two rebuild George’s house as they rebuild themselves.
The main plot is enriched to a certain degree by a number of subplots involving Sam’s self-identity issues, George’s ex-wife Robin’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) troubled second marriage, and George’s personal battle with the ghost of his abusive father. Perhaps the movie would have been more satisfying if Andrus had chosen to just focus on these main characters and their issues (a ploy which helped make his previous movie As Good as it Gets so successful), rather than weakening the focus of his story with a slew of extra, one-dimensional supporting characters.
Perhaps the strongest part of the movie is Kevin Kline in one of his rare dramatic roles. Though this is not Kline’s best film by any means, he does a wonderful job of turning otherwise cheesy movie-of-the-week speeches into powerful dialogues. Hayden Christensen, on the other hand, butchers his character with his constant, annoying whining. Sam seems more akin to a spoiled six year old than to a troubled teen grasping with the purpose of life. Overall, the acting was reasonably well-done, given the restrictions of the screenplay.
Ultimately, the movie fails because of this screenplay. The story is essentially a hybrid between “life-changing” movies like Jerry Maguire and “dying-main-character” movies like Stepmom. Disappointingly, Life as a House fails to explore themes or even character traits beyond what these two movies and similarly themed others already have. Instead, it relies on too many clichÉd “it’s-never-too-late” moments to fuel the audience’s interest in the story. So while the acting and directing is pretty decent, the screenplay could use a few renovations of its own.