2½ stars (out of four)
"The Architect" is a Chicago story, an intricate social-psychological drama about a now-wealthy architect (played by Anthony LaPaglia) whose youthful design for a minority public housing project gets him into current trouble. That South Side project, called Eden Court, draws him -- against his will but with increasing intensity -- Into a political controversy with the current residents.
It's an admirable film in many ways, though it doesn't quite reach its laudable goals. The feature filmmaking debut of Matt Tauber (winner of a 1996 Jefferson Award for his direction of "American Divine" and onetime resident director of the Great Jones Theatre Company), it's an accomplished, intelligent, well-made work. It boasts an astonishing cast and crew for a lower-budget independent film. Besides the prolific and adventurous LaPaglia ("Lantana," The Salton Sea" and TV's "Without a Trace") as architect Leo Waters, the actors include Isabella Rossellini as Julia, Leo's massively discontented wife, and the much-awarded emotional dynamo Viola Davis ("Syriana," "Get Rich or Die Trying") as Tonya Neeley, the fiercely committed activist.
Tonya is the igniter here. She's the voice of conscience that will help draw Leo out of his comfortable cocoon of affluence and respect. Incensed at the crime and misery generated in Eden Court -- a group of tall, packed buildings now terrorized by gangs -- Tonya wants the original project destroyed and rebuilt. And she wants Leo's signature on her petition.
At first he's bemused. Why should he attack his own youthful success and trash his reputation? But Leo, a good liberal, responds to Tonya's dedication and tries to meet her halfway -- while his own family is falling apart. Julia wants out of the marriage, his 15-year-old daughter, Christina (Hayden Panettiere of TV's "Heroes"), is trying to explore the world of boys and men, and his son, Martin (Sebastian Stan), who has dropped out of college, rebels against his father and starts exploring the world of boys as well.
I admired "The Architect," a project that augurs well for Tauber and Sly Dog Films, the indie company he's started with his producing-directing partner Danny Leiner. (Leiner's diverse credits include "The Great New Wonderful" and "Dude, Where's My Car?"). But given the fact that "The Architect" is obviously a work in the tradition of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, not to mention Henrik Ibsen, it's disappointing.
The two halves of the story -- Leo's public conflict with Tonya's crusade and the dissolution of his family -- aren't well enough integrated. The plot seems too contrived, the emotional threads too separate -- and the links between Martin's private anguish and Tonya's bitter quest too schematic. Part of the problem may lie in the fact that "The Architect" was adapted from a Scottish play by David Greig originally set in Glasgow; it may be suffering from transplant rejection. In any case, it doesn't explode into your emotions the way the plays of Miller and Williams could.
That doesn't mean "The Architect" doesn't have value, especially in Davis' fiery performance and in moments of LaPaglia's. It's a fairly well-written piece and an even better acted one. And these days, when independent films are increasingly the salvation of the serious American dramatic movie, it's heartening to see something like "The Architect," which tries to reawaken a major American dramatic tradition and sometimes succeeds.
'The Architect'Directed and written by Matt Tauber, based on the play by David Greig; photographed by John Bailey; edited by Tom McArdle; production designed by Debbie De Villa; music by Marcelo Zarvos; produced by Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Danny Leiner and Declan Baldwin. A Magnolia Pictures release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. Running time: 1:21. Director Matt Tauber will host a Q&A after the 10 p.m. Friday screening. MPAA rating: R (language and some sexual content). Leo -- Anthony LaPaglia
Tonya -- Viola Davis
Julia -- Isabella Rossellini
Christina -- Hayden Panettiere
Martin -- Sebastian Stan
Shawn -- Paul JamesCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times