The Lake House is a good film that is nearly a very good film, even if it never quite flirts with greatness. Even granting that it’s a deeply flawed work on several levels, the thing that ultimately keeps it from being more than good is simply that director Alejandro Agresti and screenwriter David Auburn (Proof) never quite get the film past a combination of effective melodrama and fantasy (or sci-fi) and into the realm of the gloriously romantic. With the help of two strong performances from Keanu Reeves (it’s time to completely leave the jokes about his acting behind) and Sandra Bullock, Agresti and Auburn craft an engaging film where you care about the characters, but they never end up with the degree of emotional resonance necessary to create a timeless romance. Put simply, any romance that doesn’t make at least one successful major assault on your tear ducts is one handkerchief shy of great romance.
The problem probably lies in the fact that the storyline — taken from a Korean film called Siworae that appears to have had no release in this country — is too cerebral for its own good. It thinks too much and feels too little. In many ways, the film reminded me more of Marc Forster’s brain-teasing thriller Stay — minus the flashiness — than an outright romance.
The concept has Alex Wyler (Reeves) living in a 1960s modern glass house built on stilts (around a tree no less) over a lake. Alex finds a letter in his mailbox from the last tenant, Kate Forster (Bullock), welcoming him to the house, but there’s a curiosity here — her letter is from 2006 and Alex is living in 2004. He writes her back — their letters reaching each other by being placed in the same mailbox at different times — and a correspondence begins. Not surprisingly, the correspondence leads to love — albeit a love that seems impossible to consummate since the two are in different times.
So much of the film is given over to trying to work out this undeniably troublesome kink that the plot threatens to take precedence over the characters. It doesn’t help matters that the pair is suffering from a plot twist that’s as painfully obvious to the viewer — the film literally hands us the answer in the first 15 minutes — as it is mystifying to the characters. (That it should continue to mystify Kate after she encounters Alex in a 2004 meeting and knows what he looks like baffles me nearly as much as the fact that she never thinks to try something as simple as the Chicago phone book — not to mention an Internet search — as a possible means of finding Alex in 2006. But these are perhaps not the sort of questions one should apply to this kind of story.)
Another reason the film never rings the emotional gong may lie in the coolness of Agresti’s visual style;the sinuousness of his camera (especially in the film’s first third) seemsfar more attuned to the architecture in the film than the characters. Thematically, that works since Alex, his brother (Ebon Moss-Bacharach, Stealth), and his father (Christopher Plummer) are all architects and the film revolves around one of the father’s works — the Lake House. Moreover, part of the story entails Alex coming to terms with the seeming coldness of his father, which in part explains his own somewhat detached attitude prior to “meeting” Kate.
The problem is that while Agresti’s style loses some of the formalized tone of the first half-hour, it never really warms up. Everything remains a little too solid for the film’s own good. It’s certainly handsome — Chicago has never looked so good — but it keeps the romance ever so slightly at bay. Still, The Lake House is an appealing film of some depth and style. And it’s certainly streets ahead of anything else that opened this week. Unlike the other releases, there’s nary a flatulence gag to be heard, and the film respects both its characters and its own premise. Those are significant pluses. Rated PG for some language and a disturbing image.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke