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Life as a House

Starring Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Jena Malone and Mary Steenburgen
Screenplay by Mark Andrus
Directed by Irwin Winkler

IN SHORT: Best of the Year #2. [Rated R for language, sexuality and drug use. 85 minutes]

Life is simple, when you lay it out in a nice straight the line. You're born. You grow up. If things go right (and you don't inadvertently mate with a flatbed truck on a busy New York street like the idiot writing this review) you pair off and you make babies. If things go well, you buy a house. If things go very well, you build your own. You get old and, if you've planned well, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor and, maybe, bounce a couple of grandkidlets on your knee.

Halfway through that pattern is George Monroe (Kevin Kline). George lives in a rundown eyesore of a dump of a shack that passes for a house on the side of a California cliff, in an otherwise upscale community. His ex-wife, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), remarried rich (to a workaholic Jamey Sheridan) and had two more kidlets, who are perfectly normal, as opposed to her child with George. Sixteen year old Sam (Hayden Christensen) is pierced everywhere you can contemplate sharp things piercing body parts, wears more eye makeup than every girl at his school combined and is in thrall, almost, to a teen pimp (and coincidentally his dealer and bestest friend) named Josh (Ian Somerhalder).

George has had the same job, building architectural models, for twenty years. He hates it. He gets laid off. He goes ballistic and then collapses in heap, due to a previously undiagnosed and quite inoperable cancer. All of this is revealed quickly and all of it forces force George to set in motion what he's been putting off since he first got married. He is going to build his dream house. He's going to use the four months he's got left to reopen the relationship with his boy. That means Sam gets to spend the summer as his dad's indentured servant, spewing rage and hate and all the usual teen stuff that gets spewed in a normal relationship. Sam would run away, but there are two women in the house next door . . . the divorcee mom, Coleen Beck (Mary Steenburgen), is George's ex-girlfriend. Coleen's daughter, Alyssa (Jena Malone), stokes an instant interest for Sam. The building of the house will eventually involve all the characters we've mentioned, as well as the local cop Kurt Walker (Scott Bakula) and a pissed off neighbor (Sam Robards), and all sorts of wonderful emotional moments are generated as the timbers go up.

Now, to be honest, we don't usually read the press notes before a screening. This time out we had a lot of time to kill and broke our habit. We regretted it immediately, drawing the conclusion that director Irwin Winkler's Life as a House was yet another potentially unbearable metaphor movie . . . just look at the title for God's sake!

An hour in the tear ducts started to throb. Breathing patterns shifted from the regular in and out to painful gasping. Then there were tears, damn it, lots of 'em. You may remember our remarks about the male/ female perceptual split when we wrote up Riding in Cars with Boys a couple of weeks ago. There may be a bit of that happening again, though we found House to be a much more engaging sit than Cars. Then again we're a 40 year old guy watching another 40 year old on the big screen, wrapping up the totality of his life in the house he has meant to build for twenty years.

In black and white that description looks like it could be for any of dozens of parent-kidlet relationship movies, and it could. Life as a House works because the relationships move in directions we haven't seen, in performances that are first rate across the board. Kline is great, which is nothing new for the actor. Christensen, who will play Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III of you-know-what, is phenomenal. What could have been a standard screaming teen performance isn't. You could cut the emotional layers with a knife and though it's too soon to start screaming words like "nomination," both Kline and Christensen get a line on our ever expanding best of the year list. More about that in December.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Life as a House, he would have paid . . .


The attraction isn't as straightforward as you might assume and it offers up the most unusual sex scene we've ever watched, outside of porn.

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