Life as a House

on October 26, 2001 by Kevin Courrier
   Director Irwin Winkler ("Guilty By Suspicion," "The Net"), who's also the prestigious producer of "Rocky," "Goodfellas," and "'Round Midnight," has yet to show the same aplomb behind the camera. In fact, "Life As a House" might be his most listless work to date. Trying for a Capraesque spirit of self-affirmation, Winkler creates a bogus piece of whimsy about a man dying of cancer who builds his dream house in order to reconcile the estranged relationship with his rebellious son. If only construction work were so ennobling.

   George Monroe (Kevin Kline), a divorced bohemian who lives in a dilapidated shack in a suburb overlooking California's Pacific Coast, is a veteran architect who's been laid off after 25 years of service. On that same day, he discovers he has terminal brain cancer. George decides to spend his last months enlisting his angry son, Sam (Hayden Christensen), in tearing down his shabby abode. But aside from running into resistance from his prodigal kid, he also encounters difficulties with his taciturn ex-wife, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas). Before long, George (who surprisingly hasn't informed his family of his condition) gets the co-operation of everyone while healing the rifts in his personal life.

   Somehow, none of the actors in "Life As a House" embarrass themselves. Kline uses some of his shaggy comic timing to give his role a little color. Christensen, who's playing a sociological construct rather than a real teenager, manages to provide a personable element. Jena Malone as a frisky teenager also has an unpredictably lively presence. But Kristin Scott Thomas is poorly cast as the earnest ex-spouse, while Mary Steenburgen is relegated to playing the middle-aged suburban eccentric. Yet how are we to believe a moment in this picture when we see George build a home without architectural plans, and using his family as inexperienced workers who don't even wear safety equipment? Put simply: "Life As A House" is a health hazard.    Starring Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Jena Malone, Mary Steenburgen and Jamey Sheridan. Directed by Irwin Winkler. Written by Mark Andrus. Produced by Irwin Winkler and Rob Cowan. A New Line release. Drama. Rated R for language, sexuality and drug use. Running time: 123 min.

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