Terms of endurement

Kevin Kline as George in <i>Life As a House</i>: Is this the segue to “Shaolin butt wallop,” or a wet T-shirt contest?

Kevin Kline as George in Life As a House: Is this the segue to “Shaolin butt wallop,” or a wet T-shirt contest?

Rated 2.0

Producer Irwin Winkler makes a dubious leap to directing with Life as a House, a male Terms of Endearment that dilutes American Beauty dysfunction with a tribal Howard Hawks sense of optimism and community. Oscar-nominated Winkler (Rocky) and writer Mark Andrus (As Good As It Gets) apparently wanted to make a pungent, moving story about relationships, redemption and rotating emotions. This is certainly a welcome endeavor in a film year desperately in need of an earthy, resuscitative fix. The disappointment is that Life As a House feels false where Beauty smacked of truth, and Winkler gushes and sputters where Hawks romanticized and entertained.

George (Kevin Kline) lives on the edge of a seaside cliff in Southern California. His ramshackle cottage and garage are wedged amid a cluster of posh homes. He sleeps in his jockey shorts with his dog sharing his bed. He likes to stagger to the cliff in his underwear in the morning within site of a neighbor’s upstairs window and piss into the Pacific Ocean. His dog prefers to relieve himself in another neighbor’s front yard. Neither neighbor is particularly happy with the toilet habits of either mammal.

The folks at George’s office aren’t happy with him either. We follow him to the architectural firm where he has constructed building models for the last 20 years. He is fired for being a pain-in-the-ass fuddy-duddy who will not embrace computer graphics as the godsend du jour.

George’s domestic front is also in disrepair. George’s teen son Sam (Hayden Christensen) lives with his ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her emotionally cold husband Peter (Jamey Sheridan). Sam is a pill-popping, glue-sniffing Marilyn Manson poster child complete with eye makeup, face piercings, blue hair and a chip the size of his dad’s models on his shoulder. He moonlights as a gay prostitute. When George is diagnosed as having only months to live, he enlists Sam to help him tear down his shack and build a dream house. Let the battling and bonding begin.

Life As a House is both a physical and a spiritual barn-raising. It does a more credible job walking us through the renovation of George’s house than it does his life. It explores the litter and scars left by alcoholism and divorce, and one man’s resiliency and tenacity when faced with his own mortality. People are so alienated from other humans that they are literally starving for a hug. The film’s downfall is that it rushes the transformation of Sam and Peter (after Robin admits she still loves George) into compassionate individuals much and misuses several peripheral characters as comic relief or props.

The most commendable element of the film is the acting. Kline is soulful without being sentimental. He gives George a depth that resonates even when he is off camera. Kline also accomplishes what Robert Redford did not do in The Horse Whisperer—draws a warm, complementary performance from the usually chilly Kristin Scott Thomas.

Christensen will star next year as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Here he looks and emotes like a teen cross between Eric Roberts and Peter Greene. He is impressive as the doped-up teen who likes “how it feels not to feel.” Jena Malone has the right vitality as Alyssa, the girl next door who hops uninvited into a shower with Sam. Mary Steenburgen has the rather thankless part of Alyssa’s mom, who is shoehorned into a comic sexual subplot involving Sam’s pimp Josh (Ian Somerhalder). Scott Bakula is his usual likable self as a local beat cop.

I liked the way the film established George’s character. I didn’t like the way it tied up conflicts and final loose ends. The subplot with an irate neighbor felt manipulative upon closure and George’s ability to reach his bitter son so quickly and with such vivid results qualifies him as the juvenile justice system counselor of this—or any—year.

“My dad says everything happens for a reason,” says Sam, and George certainly does. But, when applied to Sam’s gay hustle in a parked car and George’s abuse by his own father, that statement seems to be afflicted with the same distorted sense of reality on which Winkler and Andrus hang their hat.