THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I knew Life as a House was going to be an interesting movie during the opening five minutes. A rundown shack unexpectedly sits in an upscale neighborhood. From it emerges George Monroe (Kevin Kline), wearing only his underwear. He approaches the ocean cliff the shack sits upon and urinates over the side while his neighbors look on. Then we cut to George's son Sam (Hayden Christensen) - a disenchanted youth with face makeup and plenty of piercings - huff some solvent before beginning an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. Yes, it was clear that this movie was going to hold my attention.

From those auspicious introductions, we come to know more about this father and son. George is a virtual mess, a newly-fired architect who claims not to have been happy in ten years. He is the kind of guy you only need to look at to know that he's lost. George learns that he has only months to live, and in his remaining time he decides to fulfill a dream. His plan is to tear down the shack and build his dream house in its place. George approaches ex-wife Robin (Kristen Scott-Thomas) about taking Sam for the summer. She loves the kid, but is fed up with his behavior. Before long, Sam is living his worst nightmare: foregoing a summer of fun in favor of hard labor with his dad.

A father and son engage in carpentry therapy in Life as a House
Over the course of the season, the house begins to take shape and things change between the characters. These two troubled souls - one middle-aged, the other young - find they have more in common than they thought. George gets Sam to clean up his act a little. In return, Sam forces George to take responsibility for his failings as a parent. As their relationship starts to develop, others around them are affected. Robin grows distant from her emotionally inaccessible second husband Peter (Jamey Sheridan) and starts to re-fall in love with George. Sam also finds romance, beginning a flirtation with Alyssa Beck (Jena Malone), a semi-rebellious girl who lives next door. (Their encounter in a shower is one of the film's priceless moments). There's another subplot that figures prominently in the story, but revealing it wouldn't be fair. I will only say that the bonds that grow between certain characters pay off in an unexpectedly powerful manner.

I don't think what happens to George will come as a surprise to anyone. Whenever a movie character is told he/she has only months to live, you can rest assured that character will be dead in the final reel. Life as a House isn't about whether George lives or dies, though. In fact, the movie depends on the audience knowing that he will die. That impending finality is what makes the scenes between George and Sam so urgent. Here's a guy who is in his final moments. He sees the chance to rediscover the life he should have been living just as his time is running out.

In that sense, Life as a House is kind of like a lite version of American Beauty. Both pictures also deal with issues of forbidden sexuality, drug abuse, and suburban discontent. As I watched this movie, I was often reminded of the 1999 Best Picture Oscar winner. But you know what? American Beauty was a great movie, and if you're going to be similar to another movie, that's a good one to be similar to.

The main difference is that this one is more optimistic. It is hopeful about every person's ability to change, and to do so before it is too late. The performances are across-the-board superb, with Kline and Christensen in particular delivering award-calibre work. Screenwriter Mark Andrus also penned As Good As It Gets, another movie that explored the difficulties and rewards that come with self-improvement. His script this time is heavier on the drama than on the comedy, although there are some very funny moments. Director Irwin Winkler makes the story inspirational without pushing it over into weepiness; this is a film that earns the emotions of the audience.

The acting, writing, and direction are top-notch, but what I liked most about Life as a House was its theme. It says that relationships - like houses - need to be built. It's hard work, but when you're done you have something wonderful. And taking it a step beyond, the film also compares individual lives to houses. George and Sam end up with a beautiful home they have built. More than that, they have built their own lives into the kind worth living.

( 1/2 out of four)

Life as a House is rated R for language, sexuality and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.
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