Irwin Winkler's "Life as a House," a skillful, uncannily timely heart-tugger, is set in a posh Southern California coastal community. Vilmos Zsigmond's camera gracefully zeroes in on a cul-de-sac, first picking up on a handsome Spanish-style home, then hard by it, a large Cape Cod farmhouse, then across from it a pretentious, over-built postmodern, settling at last on a dilapidated old clapboard cottage occupying the choicest lot, a cliff-edge promontory directly above the ocean.
It is the home of George Monroe (Kevin Kline), a 45-year-old divorced architectural model builder whose residence is reflected in his unshaven appearance and his dour state of mind. For years, he's been meaning to tear down the house he inherited from a hated, abusive alcoholic father and replace it with his dream house. However, the dissolution of his marriage, and his workaholic entrenchment at a huge architectural firm have clearly postponed the project indefinitely. In one day, however, George's life collapses, and he may only have the summer to realize his long-deferred dream, hoping to involve his estranged 16-year-old son Sam (Hayden Christensen) in the project so that he won't die hated by Sam the way he hated his father. The house will be George's legacy to Sam, a sullen, angry Goth kid drifting into drugs. He is the despair of his mother, Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), who lives nearby with her wealthy second husband, Peter (Jamey Sheridan), and their two small sons (Scotty Leavenworth and Mark Weinberg).
Mark Andrus, an Oscar nominee for co-writing "As Good as It Gets," realizes that it's predictable that George will eventually win over Sam and therefore uses the arc of their relationship to frame a number of other developing relationships that reveal an array of values that have special resonance in this post-Sept. 11 world: the importance of family and community, of love between father and son, of forgiveness and the passage from self-absorption to self-sacrifice.
This kind of emotion-charged material can easily seem hokey and contrived, and it takes the combination of Andrus' easy sense of humor and deft gift of characterization as well as Winkler's belief in the values that his film espouses and his ability to inspire convincing portrayals all around to make "Life as House" work as a heart-warming, involving experience.
Kline, not surprisingly, is able to reveal George's long-dormant wit and charm breaking through a crusty, despairing surface, and the film gives the elegant Scott Thomas a change of pace as a woman as warm as she is beautiful and who is increasingly flustered by a rekindling of feelings for her ex. Christensen, already selected by George Lucas for the next two "Star Wars" movies as Anakin Skywalker, reveals considerable range as he expresses Sam's often painful, conflicted coming of age. In this he has an assist from the amused, self-assured girl (Jena Malone) who lives in the Cape Cod with her attractive single mother (Mary Steenburgen).
Observing developments, structural and otherwise, on George's property are the bemused couple (Barry Primus and Margo Winkler) living in the Spanish house and the prissy owner (Sam Robards) of the pretentious postmodern. Scott Bakula is a sympathetic cop and Ian Somerhalder plays Sam's pal who, between pounding nails for George, has an unexpected romantic adventure. Completing the world of "Life as a House" is Dennis Washington's crucially expressive production design and Mark Isham's always-enhancing, never intrusive score.
MPAA-rated: R, for language, sexuality and drug use. Times guidelines: adult themes and a few overtly sexual scenes but otherwise appropriate for younger teen audiences.
'Life as a House'
Kevin Kline: George
Hayden Christensen: Sam
Kristin Scott Thomas: Robin
Jena Malone: Alyssa
Mary Steenburgen: Coleen
Scott Bakula: Kurt Walker
Jamey Sheridan: Peter
A New Line Cinema presentation. Director Irwin Winkler. Producers Winkler, Rob Cowan. Executive producers Brian Frankish, Lynn Harris, Michael DeLuca. Screenplay Mark Andrus. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editor Julie Monroe. Music Mark Isham. Costumes Molly Maginnis. Production designer Dennis Washington. Art director Tom Taylor. Set designers Ann Harris, John Lemanis. Set decorator Denise Pizzini. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times