Life as a House

In “Life as a House,” a teen-age boy tells his girlfriend he’s angry at his father for tricking him into loving him. If her father had done that, he says, “You would hate him for the trick.”

She replies, “Not if the trick was real.”

“Life as a House” tricks us into loving it, but we don’t hate it because of it. It’s a film that absolutely should not work, but does because of gentle directing and stellar acting, and a general avoidance of the “you WILL cry!” techniques employed by many tearjerkers.

Kevin Kline gives an Oscar-caliber performance as George, a middle-aged architect whose life couldn’t be more dysfunctional. His wife, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), whom he still loves, left him 10 years ago and lives across town with their Goth-rebellious son Sam (Hayden Christensen). He’s just been fired. He lives in a shack by the ocean in California. Oh, and he has terminal cancer.

Before he dies, he wants to establish a bond with his estranged son by tearing down the shack and building a real house in its place. The house becomes a metaphor, of course, and George slowly rebuilds relationships with his son, his ex-wife and other people in his life.

There are several wonderful characters in the film, and some twists in their personalities that may be irrelevant but which add to the picture’s overall charm. Mary Steenburgen, lovely as always, plays sexually frustrated housewife Coleen, who dated George years ago and now lives down the street from his shack. Her daughter, Alyssa (Jena Malone), begins a relationship with Sam; Sam dabbles in autoerotic asphyxiation and prostitution, egged on by his friend Josh (Ian Somerhalder), who is a piece of work in his own right.

Comparisons to “American Beauty” are obvious. This film is far more optimistic and less edgy, but has several similar plot elements: the protagonist, estranged from his wife and child, who will be dead before the film’s end; a sexually active teen couple; a teen-age girl expressing attraction for her friend’s father. There’s a likeness in both films’ 21-century family angst, too: These are not the same problems the people in “Leave It to Beaver” had. (Or if they did, they didn’t discuss them quite so openly.)

I am also interested in the dichotomies of family relationships portrayed here. George says his mother was terrified of his abusive father, but more terrified of life without him. Asked why he didn’t kill his father, whom he hated, he says, “I loved him too much.” These are universal ideas, where we love those we are biologically attached to, even when there seems to be little reason for that love.

Apart from those few deft touches, Mark Andrus’ screenplay is rather trite. It has its fair share of stock dialogue and kitchen-sink-drama situations. Right down the line, everything happens pretty much the way you’d expect it to.

And yet it works. Director Irwin Winkler doesn’t force the emotions; he coaxes them gently. George’s character, in particular, is droll and self-effacing, and is thankfully not one of those stoic, saintly dying people we see so often in movies. There is a great deal of humor mixed in with the drama, lightening the mood and conveying that oh-so-important feel of a film not taking itself too seriously.

Winkler has compassion for his characters, each of whom is lovable in his or her own way. Hayden Christensen — whom we will see next year playing Anakin Skywalker — is a revelation, holding his own against Kline, who is one of our most unfairly overlooked actors. It is a remarkably mediocre screenplay, made remarkably sweet by a light touch and a kindhearted attitude.

B+ (; R, frequent harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, brief non-sexual nudity, some drug use.)