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Life as a House (Irwin Winkler) 2001

You can smell bad Oscar bait from a mile away, and Life as a House, definitely qualifies. Itís a fairly ornate production, and itís a technically solid film (outside of a few laughably bad matte shots), and all of is pieces seem to fall into place, but it doesnít seem to realize there is a good deal of strength to be found in chaotic ugliness. Every shot looks like a postcard, so when a particular shot is supposed to contain some cathartic beauty, it has none. Much like 1999ís Oscar-winning American Beauty, it combines its cloying sentimentality with a sarcastic bitter disappointment with life. By the end of the film, which makes literal the message of Hillary Clintonís It Takes a Village with an Amish-style house raising, all of the cynics are silenced by an inevitable slide toward enlightenment. The film suggests only true cynics could stumble upon this enlightenment, since anyone that is happy is probably living a lie. So why are we supposed to cheer when the cynics become happy?

The problem with this setup is that the film has to manipulate us a great deal in order to get us to endorse both viewpoints. House shows us a scene in which Kevin Klineís Luddite character trashes his office after heís fired for refusing to learn to use a computer. I donít know what sort of person still has such a piquant case of technophobia, but between this episode and his early morning strolls outside, in which heís clad only in his underwear, I have a suspicion that heís more than a bit unhinged (which makes his supposed Everyman stance problematic). When he reveals another human hasnít touched him in several years, you arenít surprised. Who would fraternize with this guy? Worse still is his son. Hayden Christensen plays the role, and he starts out as a sexually ambiguous Goth teen. The film seems less horrified by his obsession with suicide and huffing than it does by the suggestion that he might give other men blowjobs. His characterís development, which predictably shows him as he drops his Goth stylings, pales in comparison to the one in the similarly-themed My First Mister. In that film, we understood why Leelee Sobieskiís character chose her lifestyle. Here, the film seems as unable to relate to the character as his parents are. Thereís no attempt to understand him, but there is plenty of energy spent criticizing him. This sort of two-facedness extends throughout the film. Although some of the performances (most notably Kristen Scott-Thomasí) are passable, none of them are completely stellar. Notably, Mary Steenburgen seems to be reprising her role from 1993ís Whatís Eating Gilbert Grape (a similar, yet entirely better, film) but sheís much older and the boy she seduces is much younger this time out, which made me feel a tad uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it was far from the only awkward thing in the film which made me squirm. 

*1/2 

11-20-01

Jeremy Heilman