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'LIFE AS A HOUSE': PRETTY EMPTY.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

``Life as a House'' strains to support a metaphor as big as ... well, you know. The foundation of this superficial family drama isn't solid enough to do the job.

Everything about the film's set-up is stamped with TV movie contrivance. There's a dying parent, a troubled youth, a loveless second marriage and goofy neighbors to help keep it all from getting too realistic. Some highly specious comparisons to ``American Beauty'' have been made, and while ``House'' is not totally devoid of honest and even earned feelings, this is strictly the McDonald's version of suburban dysfunction.

As the prime-time soap ``Knots Landing'' told us repeatedly (and more persuasively), folks who own ocean view lots in Palos Verdes have a lot of problems. George Monroe's (Kevin Kline) main one seems to be, um, some kind of lifelong malaise, I guess, which made his ex-wife think he never loved her and their teen-age son get his face pierced (which, worse than being a sign of rebellion, makes him look like every other unhappy adolescent in movies these days).

Or maybe spouse and child just couldn't stand living anymore in the creaky, plumbing-impaired shack George inherited from his father and - despite the fact that he's worked his whole adult life as a professional architect - has never bothered to replace or even improve. But all that changes when George not only discovers he has just four more months left to live but gets fired on the same day. Armed with severance pay and renewed purpose, he decides to construct a showplace on his property, or at least something that would blend in better with the cul-de-sac's other nice homes.

Via the construction process, of course, George also intends to rebuild his family a la the title metaphor. This is not too difficult as far as ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) is concerned, since she's married to a warmthless workaholic (Jamey Sheridan). And it isn't; once she sees the new wood framing going up, Robin can hardly tear herself away from the construction site.

Their son Sam (Hayden Christensen, star of the next two ``Star Wars'' features) is a gnarlier issue. Gothed-up, drugged-out and flirting with gay prostitution, he's a shrill, obnoxious creep who takes his parents' every action as a personal affront. George forces Sam to help build the house and, worse, insists that they bunk together in a converted garage for the duration of the project.

With Kline playing it jovial-but-sensitive and Christensen resentful and moody, their scenes together can't help but be occasionally powerful and sometimes even perceptive. But the outcome of this generational mud wrestle is as mushily predictable as the fact that we'll recognize it by the sudden disappearance of Sam's pearly chin stud.

Among the colorful cast of neighbors, a cradle-robbing mom (Mary Steenburgen) and her precocious daughter (Jena Malone) provide sexy comic relief. Another one, a disagreeable type played by Sam Robards, poses a threat to both the new building and, in an unbelievable coincidence, the family healing it represents. None of these people are permitted any dimensionality beyond their immediate plot functions, which is another lapse that makes the ``American Beauty'' comparisons so risible.

Irwin Winkler is a distinguished producer (``Raging Bull,'' ``Rocky,'' ``GoodFellas,'' ``Point Blank'') who, as a director (``Guilty by Suspicion,'' ``The Net,'' ``At First Sight''), is a pretty good producer. ``Life as a House'' is a professionally made film, shot nicely by the great Vilmos Zsigmund (``Deliverance,'' ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind'') and always clearly presented (``As Good as It Gets'' screenwriter Mark Andrus wrote the script from a concept by Winkler).

But any really resonant movie about family problems recognizes that they bear mysteries so deep and peculiar that they can never be simply understood, let alone rectified by some symbolic group project. Probably the most telling shot in the whole film is a closing swing around the completed structure: It looks suitably handsome, but there doesn't appear to be any life going on inside.

``LIFE AS A HOUSE''

(Rated R: language, nudity, sex, drug use)

The stars: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hayden Christensen, Jena Malone, Mary Steenburgen.

Behind the scenes: Directed by Irwin Winkler. Written by Mark Andrus. Produced by Winkler and Rob Cowan. Released by New Line Cinema.

Running time: Two hours, eight minutes.

Playing: AMC Century 14, Century City; Beverly Center Cineplex, West Hollywood; Cineplex Broadway, Santa Monica.

Our rating: Two stars

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

As an about-to-die architect, actor Kevin Kline decides to make his shack of a house a showplace, dragging his son, played by Hayden Christensen, along for the contentious ride.
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Title Annotation:Review; L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Oct 26, 2001
Words:771
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