It’s an unabashed — and not wholly successful — full-scale assault on the tear-ducts. It aims for the three-handkerchief realm (you didn’t really think I was going to say “three hankie,” did you?), but never gets much beyond one and a half — two if you’re charitable. And what emotional resonance it has is mostly due to the performances of Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Hayden Christensen. It certainly doesn’t come from the Disease of the Week TV Movie screenplay by Mark Andrus (As Good as it Gets), nor the purely workmanlike direction of Irwin Winkler. Much like a house, a movie needs a good foundation, and that’s one thing Life as a House is sadly lacking. It has a hackneyed premise: A man dying of cancer (Kline) tries to break through to his alienated, drug abusing, small-time hustler son (Hayden Christensen, The Virgin Suicides). It’s about as fresh and appealing as three-week-old tuna casserole. The efforts to update this concept are not only lacking, but remarkably unfocused. The screenplay doesn’t seem to quite know what the son is. For the most part, he looks and acts like a Goth, but this is only about as skin deep as the character’s multiple piercings (which miraculously heal up the minute he removes his myriad adornments). At other times, he affects the mannerisms and dress of a wanna-be thug. In both cases, it rings a little false, especially since it takes very little to bring the kid around. I suppose the idea of making him a very minor league hustler is meant to be very modern and a little bit daring. It might be those things, except that not much is made of it (the character’s sexuality is, in fact, never really addressed) and, worse, it turns out to be in the film for no real purpose, except that it functions as an enjoyable, but unbelievable and facile plot contrivance. All the characters are rather fuzzy in the motivation department, and they all tend toward a peculiar kind of amorality. Just what the story is with the Mary Steenburgen character is anybody’s guess. The same is true of Jena Malone (For Love of the Game) as Steenburgen’s daughter. She seems to have a boyfriend, but is more than ready to take up with the Christensen character once said boyfriend serves his plot contrivance purposes. For that matter, she even comes onto Kline in one scene. Not only is her character unclear, it’s unclear what the filmmakers are trying to say! So much of the film works on contrivances that it’s hard not to see them coming a mile off — the set-up for a heart-tugging bit involving Christmas lights is painfully transparent, for example. At the center of this, however, are some very fine performances. Kline’s character may occasionally veer a little too much toward the precious, but there’s a manic intensity combined with a bemused detachment in Kline’s playing that manages to overcome this. Plus, he and Kristin Scott Thomas play well off each other, but the most impressive and affecting moments are those between Kline and Christensen. The scene where Christensen confronts his father about the pain killers he’s taking and Kline tells him that he’s dying has the ring of truth, of something quite beyond the shameless manipulations of much of the film. In this moment, you get a glimpse of what a very good film Life as a House could have been, but almost never is.
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