Kevin Kline hammers his talents home, but this "House" suffers from a weak foundation. 

This Property Condemned

Intended as visual exploration of the meaning and measure of a man's legacy and his worth, "Life as a House" is false where it should ring true, contrived where it needs to be daring and prefab where it calls for originality. More akin to an '80s-era "Disease of the Week" made-for-TV movie, its saving grace comes in the talented lead performance of Kevin Kline. As George, a dying divorced man trying to grab one last fistful of life's gusto, Kline comes soooo close to getting us to buy into the schmaltz.

On a sociological level, "Life as a House" also stands out because it's one of only a handful of movies this year dealing in any mature way with marriage, adult or parent-child relationships. Sadly, it also extends Hollywood's current trend of reducing genuine emotion and human complexity to their barest outlines, and translating death and human loss into an overwrought, teary excuse for some sort of character redemption, no matter how unbelievable or manipulated.

Our suspension of disbelief is stretched from the start when 45-year-old George wakes up in a ramshackle shack at the end of a cul-de-sac in a pricey Orange County, Calif., neighborhood. Make no mistake, we see right away that George is an eccentric, and a persistent one. When he can't get in the bedroom door to talk to his depressed, Gothed-out son Sam (Hayden Christensen), he climbs up a ladder to get in another way.

But Sam — who lives with his mom and George's ex (Kristin Scott Thomas), various siblings and an emotionally distant stepdad (Jamey Sheridan) — is just one of George's concerns. Forget his snooty neighbors (Sam Robards and Mary Steenburgen) and their sexy 16-going-on-30 daughter (Jena Malone) who's got an eye for Sam. George has got trouble at work as well.

He's been toiling away at the same architectural firm for 20 years as a model-maker, but when he balks at changing over to computers he gets laid off. In a final fit of rage, George takes a baseball bat to his work space. When he collapses, he winds up in the hospital where a battery of tests come up with a diagnosis befitting the downturn his life has taken. Although screenwriter Mark Andrus and director Irwin Winkler refuse to tell us just what ails George until nearly 90 minutes into the movie, we do know that he's got only four months to live.

Underwritten by the firm's severance package, George decides to tear down his shack and build his dream house with the time he has left. He also insists that Sam help him, requiring that the two spend the summer together. But before the inevitable happens, there's much whining and teen-age histrionics and parental declarations, and, yes, even a few funny, heartfelt lines.

But as the house construction begins, Andrus sets up the script's dramatic conflicts solely and repetitiously in terms of polar opposites. And everyone involved is clearly there for no other reason than to take some sort of path toward inner healing. Consequently, their travails seem more like a writing exercise than anything remotely genuine.

In many ways, Kline makes such a strong impression because he's got the easiest role. He's only required to focus on his house and connecting with his son — at least, until his ex starts showing up and reigniting those old loving feelings. Kline shines in the first part of the film, filling in who and what kind of man George is through mannerisms and inflection and body language. But much like the script, he's on shaky ground when George apprises Sam of the scope of his bitter life with a father he hated much more than his son could or ever will despise him.

Unfortunately, Kline alone cannot raise the roof on this family melodrama that soon slips into gooey sentimentality. "Life as a House" becomes increasingly less authentic as it takes itself more seriously. Although it has its moments and characters to cheer, little about this house feels real.

Movies are rated out of a possible 5


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