When a movie is called “Life as a House” you enter on full metaphor alert. When it turns out to be about an estranged father and son who pull down an old shack and construct a dream house overlooking the ocean and it turns out to be a transforming experience for everyone who happens by while it is in progress plus including a tragic death that is still another transforming experience for everyone, you have every right to expect a generic made-for-TV-movie uplifting weepie. But this movie gives us something more, thanks to a script by Mark Andrus (of “As Good as it Gets”) and a first rate cast.
Kevin Kline plays George, an unhappy man who creates meticulously crafted models in an architectural firm. His skills are no longer valuable in an era of computerized design, his ex-wife does not like him, his teenage son hates everyone, including himself, and his house is literally falling down around him. When George is fired, he decides to tear down his house, which was built by his father, and build a new one with his son, Sam (Hayden Christiansen). At first, Sam is hostile and uncooperative. Then he is hostile and a little bit cooperative. Then he, like George, learns the power of tearing down painful parts of their history and starting over again to build something new.
George’s ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her children become intrigued with the project. And the pretty teenager next door becomes intrigued with Sam. Soon, everybody is pitching in except for the angry neighbor who vows to stop them.
There is a lot wrong with this movie. The plot is creaky and manipulative. The female characters are all fantasy figures. Some of the plot lines never get resolved — they just stop (or, in one case, just fall off the roof). The solution to the problem with the neighbor is unintentionally unnerving. But there is a lot that is right with the movie, too, including subtle, magnetic performances and moments of real power and feeling. If the movie is not as dazzling as the finished house, at least it is not as decrepit as the shack.
Parents should know that this movie has drug use, very strong language, sexual situations and references, including teen prostitution, nudity, masturbation involving attempted suffocation, and adult-teen sexual encounters. Teenagers take very foolish risks with little consequence beyond their own misery. There is a very sad death.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so hard for Sam to feel good about about himself, and why the things he tried to make himself feel better did not work. What did he mean when he said that it felt better to feel things? Why was physical touch so important to many of the characters? Families will also want to talk about the behavior of Colleen and Alyssa and their decisions about their sexual relationships.
Take a good look at Hayden Christiansen, who plays Sam. The next time you see him will probably be as the young Anakin Skywalker (and future Darth Vadar) in the next episode of “Star Wars.” Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Shoot the Moon, about a disintegrating marriage, with brilliant performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney.