Here’s a movie with a poignant lesson for us all: Open your damned mail.
OK, that sounds glib, but everything that happens in this bloated Lifetime Movie of the Week could have been avoided if its heroine, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), hadn’t spent eight solid months wallowing in such self-pity that she not only couldn’t open her mail, but has been letting it pile up behind the letter slot, apparently stepping over it to get in and out of the house. (It’s a good thing no one sent her a rowing machine, or she’d probably have just been trapped inside).
I warn the reader outright that I find it impossible to tackle this movie without at least hinting about the events of the plot, so this review is apt to contain spoliers (if you’re determined to see House of Sand and Fog, you might want to read the review later). Now, I haven’t read the Andre Dubus III source novel on which this film is based — even though the studio kindly sent me a books-on-tape version of it — and I’m not likely to after seeing the film. But I would hope that the book does a better job of making its heroine more sympathetic than does the script by Shawn Lawrence Otto and first-time director Vadim Perelman.
The film tries hard to make the viewer sympathize with this woman who has unfairly lost her house, but it was a lost cause for this audience member. When we meet Kathy, she’s lying in bed in the midst of her trashed home, feeling sorry for herself — mostly, it seems, because her husband left her eight months ago. True, she does manage to get up and earn some kind of a living as a cleaning woman, but how easy is it to feel trluly sorry for this woman who has the luxury of being able to otherwise mope for a solid eight months? It’s her very self-indulgence that leads to the loss of her house.
There’s some back-story about Kathy’s being a recovering alcoholic, but this never really leads anywhere. At one point, she even remarks that sobriety was never her problem. Indeed, seemingly not, since she appears to slide back into social drinking without any difficulty, and only drinks to excess once — and then just to work up the courage for her first botched suicide bid (the movie affords her two). While her anger at losing the house over an erroneous back-taxes charge is certainly understandable, the way she handles it is something else again, especially when she enlists the aid of the world’s dumbest cop, Lester (Ron Eldard, Ghost Ship), to try to browbeat the new legal owner into accepting the county’s offer to buy the $174,000 house back for the $45,000 he paid for it at auction.
The ugliness of this — and the supposed point — is upped in that the new owner is an Iranian immigrant, Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), which drags all manner of xenophobic baggage into play. This could have been a much stronger statement on the topic, as well as a much-more-pointed indictment of the American success ethic — and both of these things (particularly the latter) do indeed hover around the edges of the story.
A great deal of Kathy’s problem hinges on her being unable to tell her family that her husband has left her, because that would be an admission of failure. For that matter, a large part of Behrani’s tenacity in keeping the house is grounded in his own pursuit of the American Dream for himself and his family. (He, however, is more sympathetic in that he is doing this for his family, while Kathy is only looking out for her own interests.) These things are inherent in the material, but the story is too concerned with being an improbable addition to the seemingly underused Real Estate Tragedy genre to do more than touch on them.
The whole premise is shaky to begin with. Since Kathy is only co-owner of the house, it’s incredible that the property could have been seized for taxes without her estranged husband also being notified. The script just ignores this — much as it ignores the fact that county would not actually be in the best position to make a take-it-or-leave-it offer under the circumstances. But to bring this kind of basic logic into play would work contrary to the film’s desire to be tragedy of the sort best confined to grand opera. By movie’s end, the story has chalked up two suicide bids, one accidental-shooting death, one marital split, one character on the way to the big house, one “mercy” killing, and one incredibly stoic successful suicide. Wagner is light fare by comparison.
Such soapy contrivances waste two strong performances by Kingsley and Connelly, who deserved a better movie than this. In a singularly bizarre move, Dreamworks — which can’t seem to figure out why its movies are losing money right and left — has foisted all this two-fisted grimness on us at Christmas. A lump of coal would have been a more joyous present.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke