In Irwin Winkler's LIFE AS A HOUSE, one of the very best films of the year,
George has some big problems. In an incredibly nuanced and Oscar-caliber
performance, Kevin Kline plays George, an average Joe who lives in a shack next
to multimillion dollar mansions above the Pacific ocean. (In a part worthy of a
supporting actress nomination, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Robin, George's
The first of his difficulties occurs when George is fired from the job that he
loves. For the past twenty years, he has been planting fake grass and adding
the other accoutrements in his construction of physical architectural models.
But computers have now rendered his job obsolete. It may make good business
sense, but it rips George's heart out. As anyone who has ever lost their job
knows, this can be almost unbearably painful.
And that isn't even close to the worst thing that happens to George. He finds
out that he has an incurable disease. Don't worry, this isn't one of those
manipulative disease-movie-of-the-week weepers. You'll certainly find many
tearful moments in it, but the marvelous script by Mark Andrus (AS GOOD AS IT
GETS) is uplifting and funny as well as poignant and honest. Part of this comes
from George's attitude, which is to treat his last four months on earth as a
great opportunity. The other part comes from the richness of the script, which
gives a whole host of featured and minor characters rich stories of their own.
In a fairly standard length film, it packs more into the narrative than most
miniseries and does it without ever rushing. The actors are marvelous, making
each of their problems palpable.
The biggest challenge that George faces isn't his job or his illness, it's his
son, a rebellious teen named Sam (Hayden Christensen, Anakin Skywalker in STAR
WARS: EPISODE II), who could be the perfect date for Leelee Sobieski's alienated
character in MY FIRST MISTER. An utterly unhappy 16-year-old, Sam spends his
time huffing, sniffing, smoking and worse. Dress in rebellious black, he has
long since served notice on the world that he's one of the walking dead. He
wants nothing to do with his father with whom he doesn't live, or his mother and
stepfather, Peter (Jamey Sheridan), whose house he occupies. To say that his
relationship with his parents is strained is an understatement. "What kind of a
mother can't stand her own son?" Robin asks George in a telling, confessional
question that has no proper answer.
George is full of secrets, his illness being one. Those about him take his
weight lost as some sort of fluke. After all, he has always had a rugged,
grizzled look. Another secret concerns his undying love for Robin. "Love is
not enough," he tells her as one of the reasons for the dissolution of their
marriage, "not even close."
In this most unusual and imaginative story, George decides his and Sam's
salvation will come from building a house that summer. He'll tear down his old
shack and erect one based on one of his models. Sam wants no part of this
endeavor, but in a variation on the tough love system, George requires that Sam
at least stay with him and watch. Without computers, cable, Internet or drugs,
Sam is absolutely lost. George doesn't even have an indoor shower. This,
however, proves to be an opportunity for Sam, as it allows him to connect with
the girl next door, Alyssa (Jena Malone), who has a fully functional indoor
bathroom that she is quite happy to share. Mary Steenburgen is wonderful in a
small part as Alyssa's mother.
All but the most cynical should be moved by the transformation in Sam, George,
Robin and all the rest of characters. This upbeat story is almost as good as
the downbeat AMERICAN BEAUTY. Common to both are the richness of their
narratives and of all the characters. When it's over, you may be like me. LIFE
AS A HOUSE made such an impression on me that I had trouble moving. What a
wonderful story it is.
LIFE AS A HOUSE runs 2:08. It is rated R for " language, sexuality and drug
use" and would be acceptable for teenagers.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes