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(2001) (Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas) (R)

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Drama: Given only a few months to live, a former architect sets out to rebuild both his dilapidated seaside house and his relationship with his estranged family.
George Monroe (KEVIN KLINE) is an architect who's just lost his job and discovered that he only has a few months to live. Instead of going into deep depression, however, he decides he must accomplish a few things before his time runs out. First, he decides to rebuild the seaside house where he and his ex-wife, Robin Kimball (KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS) lived for a number of years before divorcing over a decade ago.

While George still lives in the dilapidated shack next to single mom Coleen Beck (MARY STEENBURGEN), whom he once dated, and her teenage daughter, Alyssa (JENA MALONE), Robin is raising their disillusioned and disturbed teenage son, Sam (HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN), with her second husband, Peter (JAMEY SHERIDAN) who's not overly close to Sam or his own kids.

Realizing his house project would be a good time to get to know his estranged son, George arranges for Sam to spend the summer with him. Not surprisingly, the teen would rather get high or make some quick bucks doing sexual favors for pimp Josh (IAN SOMERHALDER), who's dating Alyssa, but George doesn't give up in trying to connect with his son.

As the summer wears on, and his time begins to run out while he must contend with neighbor David Dokos (SAM ROBARDS) who immensely dislikes him and his construction project, George purges his own personal demons while reconnecting with his family and rebuilding his seaside home.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Among the many things that differentiate humans from the rest of the animal world is that we're aware of our own mortality. Unless one is very old or very sick, however, the notion of dying is usually put on the back burner. There it sits unnoticed until one day it finally boils over and we realize that we've waited too long to deal with it and/or squandered time and opportunities thinking both would always be available.

Accordingly, when one gets to that point, they fret about not having any more time to do what they wished or to make amends with those with whom they've grown distant or fallen out of favor. Sometimes, however, when one is diagnosed with only a given amount of time to live, they set out live life to its fullest and often rediscover themselves and happiness in the process.

George Monroe is one such person, and after being given only a few months to live, he reorders his priorities and sets out to rebuild both his seaside house and his relationship with his disillusioned teenage son. Such is the premise of "Life As a House," a generally well-made film that might not be perfect as it has a number of flaws, but thankfully avoids being one of those maudlin, made for TV movies focusing on the disease of the week.

Somewhat reminiscent - in various ways - of "American Beauty" but nowhere as good, and obviously similar to any other past film where a terminally ill individual comes to grips with his or her mortality and makes peace with others and the rest of the world, the film has its share of funny, heartwarming and tearful moments.

It's also a bit thick in the symbolism department. Beyond the obvious title, the rebuilding of the house is obviously a metaphor of George rebuilding his life and relationships with his family members. To get there, of course, he must tear down the ramshackle abode that he inherited from his chronically abusive and now dead father. To no one's surprise, his dismantling of the shack means he's really tearing down those former demons that have prevented him from being the best father he could be.

Some viewers may also have problems with the film's "let's feel happy" moments that occasionally zigzag between blatant manipulation and mawkishness. While such material isn't horrible or laid on too thick, it might be a bit much for those not pre-wired for it or who are less inclined to find such moments enjoyable or entertaining.

In addition, as the film travels into such territory, the filmmakers - director Irwin Winkler ("At First Sight," "The Net") and screenwriter Mark Andrus ("As Good As It Gets") - introduce some odd material and behavior that don't really do much for the film beyond distracting the viewer into wondering what they were trying to achieve with it.

There's no denying the achievements of the cast, however, particularly in regards to lead actor Kevin Kline ("The Anniversary Party," "Dave"). Winning the sort of role that often gets Oscar buzz, well, buzzing, Kline delivers a terrific performance that's arguably the best of his career.

Equally as good is Kristin Scott Thomas ("Up at the Villa," "The Horse Whisperer") as his ex-wife who finds herself falling for him all over again. Although her character clearly isn't as fleshed out as well as his, she's still quite good in the role.

Relative newcomer Hayden Christensen ("Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," "The Virgin Suicides") also delivers a strong performance as the disgruntled, confused and angry teen who - not surprisingly - experiences a wide range of emotions and behavior as he grows as a person. Although that dramatic arc is pretty much predictable, Christensen does a stellar job playing it.

Mary Steenburgen ("Time After Time," "Melvin and Howard") and Jena Malone ("For Love of the Game," "Stepmom") are good as an interesting mother/daughter duo, even if their characters are involved in some of the stranger late in the game developments, while Jamey Sheridan ("Hamlet," "Cradle Will Rock") and Scott Bakula ("American Beauty," "Necessary Roughness") appear in smaller roles.

One of those films that comes off as frustrating since some parts of it are so good and others somewhat diminish the rest since they aren't, the picture seemingly tries to emulate the "life is beautiful" moments and depth of "American Beauty," but isn't as well-constructed and feels like it's missing some of the requisite finishing work. Decent, but not great - notwithstanding the good performances - "Life As a House" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 1, 2001 / Posted November 2, 2001

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