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When "Life" Happens
on May 12, 2002
Somebody once said that "life" is what happens when you're not looking. And it's so true. Too often we let the years slip by, and the important things slip right along with them; and it's only when something happens that we start to pay attention, and by then it's too late to do anything about it. The good news, however, is that as long as you're still breathing there's still a chance to make amends, or at least try to. You can try, not to make up for past mistakes (and we've all made them), but to make "today" count, which is what a man at a particular juncture in his life discovers and sets out to do, in "Life As A House," directed by Irwin Winkler, and starring Kevin Kline.
George Monroe (Kline) is an architect, a man who can design anything, with the exception of that which is the most important: His own life. He has a failed marriage-- now divorced for ten years from Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas)-- a failed relationship with his now sixteen-year-old son, Sam (Hayden Christensen), he's getting on in years and he's unhappy, which is driven home by circumstances involving his job and his health that make him abruptly sit up and take notice. His "house," literally and figuratively, in not in order. And he decides to do something about it. He's determined to tear down his old house and rebuild a new one, and he begins by arranging for Sam to come and live with him for the summer. And it will be a summer that will affect, not only George and Sam, but Robin, and a number of others, as well; a summer in which the trivial things of life are put on hold; and for once, the important things are embraced.
Working from a well written and insightful screenplay (by Mark Andrus), Winkler delivers a drama that is thoughtful and poignant (at times, even poetic), wonderfully acted and beautifully filmed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Rich in metaphor, it's an engrossing film that works on a number of levels, and will appeal to a wide audience-- many of whom will relate to George and his situation, others who will identify with Sam; and for some, it may hit strikingly too close to home. Whatever your personal situation is, it will fall somewhere within the emotional arc Winkler creates here; and if it doesn't now, it will eventually. Because, as this film so trenchantly points out, "life" happens. And the most important thing is knowing what to do with it-- if not the first time around, then at least before it's too late.
He received an Oscar for his portrayal of Otto in the comedy "A Fish Called Wanda," but Kevin Kline decidedly hits his stride in dramatic roles: As Nathan in "Sophie's Choice," Mack in "Grand Canyon" or Ben in "The Ice Storm," for example; and now here, as George Monroe. Kline brings George believably to life, with a performance that hints at who George was, but most importantly tells us who he is now. With understated subtly, he conveys his inner-most feelings in a way that enables the audience to make that all-important emotional connection with the character. He makes you feel as though you know him; and once you do, and once you meet Robin, it's hard to understand what went wrong between them all those years ago. One can only assume that somewhere along the line youth and a lack of focus took it's toll-- understandable in a world that bombards us daily with endless stimuli. And it's one of the subtle perspectives that makes this film so effective.
Kristin Scott Thomas gives a convincing performance, as well, as Robin, a woman who has moved on with her life, but in whom you can discern a certain dissatisfaction with her current situation. On the surface, her life seems agreeable, but we see through her portrayal that it is still lacking in some regard. She seems happy to some extent, but it's more like the unfulfilled happiness that comes when one has "settled" for something. You get the sense that what she has with her current husband, Peter (Jamey Sheridan), is somehow less than what she had with George, at least at some point or other. Thomas does a good job of indicating the complexities of her character, dipping beneath the surface to make what could have been a one-note character alive and interesting.
One of the real rewards of this film, however, is found in the wonderfully affecting performance of young Hayden Christensen, as Sam. With but a few TV appearances and a handful of unremarkable films to his credit (the exception being a part in Sophia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides"), Christensen is virtually an unknown, but comes through with some extremely impressive work here. He not only finds, but manages to convey, that turmoil of confusion and need for personal identity that every teenager experiences, and he presents it quite naturally and effectively. There's nothing feigned or pretentious about him; the Sam he delivers comes from somewhere deep down inside, and working from the inside out makes him very real and believable. It's a performance that should jump-start his career, which is about to be catapulted into high gear/high profile status when "Star Wars: Episode 2, Attack of the Clones" hits the screen, in which he plays the role of Anakin Skywalker. And because of the magnitude of that film and all that goes along with it, he will never receive the acclaim he deserves, no matter how good a job he does in it; so it's important that he has this film under his belt, which demonstrates what a truly gifted young actor he really is, a fact that may be overlooked once "Clones" hits (which is what happened to Leonardo DiCaprio after "Titanic"). And Christensen's performance here is a big part of what makes "Life As A House" a winner.