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(2003) (Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley) (R)

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Drama: After wrongly being evicted from her home, a troubled young woman tries to get it back from an Iranian immigrant who's moved in with his family in hopes of making a big profit from it.
Kathy Nicolo (JENNIFER CONNELLY) is a troubled young woman whose husband has left her to sit in her house and ponder her existence. Her distracted state results in ignoring her mail that includes notice of a delinquent business tax bill and subsequent eviction. She doesn't realize this until Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (RON ELDARD) and his partner arrive to escort her out.

Learning that she has no friends or nearby family, Lester takes pity on her and finds a place for her to stay. With him being unhappy in his role as husband and father, that soon turns into attraction and he leaves his wife and kids for her.

At the same time, Iranian immigrant and former military colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (BEN KINGSLEY) moves into the house - after buying it at a bargain price - with his subservient wife, Nadi (SHOHREH AGHDASHLOO), and more westernized son, Esmail (JONATHAN AHDOUT). Disillusioned with his failure to live the American dream, Behrani hopes that he can sell the house and make a quick and large profit.

As Kathy tries to make inroads through the tangle of bureaucratic red tape with the help of lawyer Connie Walsh (FRANCES FISHER), she can't stay away from her former home. That eventually leads to confrontations with Behrani. When Lester decides to get involved and push around his weight, things turn decidedly ugly. As both parties remain intent on claiming the house as theirs, little do they realize the pending ramifications of their acts and stubbornness.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
I'm sure you've probably seen the ads and notices for sales and auctions of repossessed computers, cars, boats and even homes. They certainly sound intriguing, particularly since you can often get great steals - no pun intended considering that crime is how some of those items end up in government hands - on the goods.

Yet, I've always been tentative since you have to wonder what the original and often less than scrupulous owners would think of you owning their former possessions. And what if they or their "representative" attend such an auction and note that you're the highest bidder? It's possible you might get an unexpected and unwelcome knock on the door, or head, one night.

Of course, if the goods in question are simply a stereo or car, you could always arrange to sell it back to them - or someone else - to get you off the hook. However, it's entirely another issue when it's a home that you've moved into with your own possessions and/or family.

Such a situation obviously sounds like a good premise for a movie, be it a comedy or domestic type thriller. First time filmmaker Vadim Perelman, however, is going for something entirely different in his drama, "House of Sand and Fog."

That is, at least for the first two acts or so and before the film near completely unravels before our eyes toward the end. That's when it suddenly turns into a potboiler featuring unbelievable developments and character motivations.

Until then, it's actually quite a good if slightly disjointed effort. As adapted by Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto from the bestselling novel by Andre Dubus III, the film is an intriguing character study where such an auctioned house drives people to unspeakable acts of desperation.

Instead of criminal activity, however, a bureaucratic snafu and inattention on the part of the depressed character terrifically played by Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind," "The Hulk") gets the ball rolling. She plays one of those lost souls who seems shell-shocked and bewildered over what's occurred throughout her life. With a meaningless job, the aftereffects of rehab and no friends or family nearby, the only thing she has left is the house that her father left her and her brother. Losing it means losing her last semblance of sanity and she's not about to let that happen.

On the other end is an Iranian immigrant and former military colonel under the Shah - brilliantly played by Ben Kingsley ("Sexy Beast," "Gandhi") -- who's discovered that the American dream is not all that it's cut out to be. Too proud to admit failure, he works several blue-collar jobs but changes back into a business suit so that his loyal if subservient wife - Shohreh Aghdashloo ("Sooteh-Delan," "Guests of Hotel Astoria") -- and more Westernized son - Jonathan Ahdout (making his debut) -- are no wiser.

When he manages to nab Connelly's house at an auction for a quarter of the street price, he thinks he's hit the jackpot and can use the earnings from a sale to bring his family and self-being up a step or two. Accordingly, he's not about to let that previous government snafu or her interrupt his plans.

Thus, a battle of wills is set into motion. Yet, rather than the film becoming a domestic thriller like countless others before it, Perelman wants and initially succeeds at making his picture all about the characters and the cultural differences between them. Neither is painted as right or wrong, but instead they're two people whose happiness will stem from the house finally being theirs.

For more than half the picture, all of that works quite well, with Perelman adding all sorts of visual and thematic symbolism to drive home the point. Thankfully, that never comes off as too preachy or artsy. Yet, in feeling the need for a subplot, the filmmakers introduce a huge fissure in the plot's foundation that eventually causes it crumble.

That's when the deputy sheriff character played by Ron Eldard ("Black Hawk Down," "Ghost Ship") suddenly decides to take matters into his own hands. His presence - initially introduced as a sounding board and then love interest for Connelly's character - is obviously there to ratchet up the proceedings and introduce and then multiply the otherwise absent suspense material.

While I can see where the filmmakers are going and what they're trying to do - beholden to the novel's story or not (having not read it, I can't say) - the new décor turns the effort into a completely different sort of film that doesn't mesh with the earlier material.

Although it makes sense from a realistic standpoint - I could easily see the development happening in real life - it ruins an otherwise terrific first half. It's also rather unbelievable as presented here, although a few plot tweaks here and there could have lessened some of the crumbling and possibly eliminated all of it.

Then, just when you think you've seen it all, it turns even more preposterous and ludicrous. I won't go into the plot details to avoid giving away the culminating surprises, but let's just say you won't believe what happens. To boot, it also turns an already somber affair into an incredibly depressing offering.

The performances are what save it from disaster. Even during that complete unraveling, Kingsley is at the top of his game, as is Connelly. For the most part, you completely believe and buy their desires and pain and some of the material is heartbreaking to say the least. Aside from the unwise turn of events, Eldard is good in his role, but it's Aghdashloo who makes quite an impression.

Although I'm usually not into depressing dramas, I really wanted this film to work, mainly because I cared about and was interested in the finely drawn characters and interesting premise. Unfortunately, the developments that occur in the third act are so bad that this is one "House of Sand and Fog" that you might not want to visit. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10, but only for the first two-thirds and fine performances within it.

Reviewed November 25, 2003 / Posted December 26, 2003

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