There is a very valuable message at the center of "The Architect," writer/director Matt Tauber's small scale, loose adaptation of the play by Scottish writer David Greig. Urban blight, inescapable poverty, and the transformation of public housing from hope for the poor to headquarters for violent gangs, it's all much discussed here. But so is teenage angst and the mental health of suburban housewives and coming-of-age sexuality, and it's all such a sloppy jumble that the main message gets lost along the way.
At the heart of the film is a housing project in Chicago (updated from the play's original Glasgow), where we find Tonya Neeley (Viola Davis), an activist working to tear the buildings down. The residents deserve better, she says, and mere cosmetic upgrades would do nothing to fix the problems that feed off of the buildings' inherent design flaws. Her petition is growing in numbers and popularity - Oprah signed it - but she decides the most powerful name to get is that of the project's original architect, Leo Waters (Anthony LaPaglia).
Which is the makings of an excellent drama. Leo - affluent, stubborn, and white - has never bothered to visit the apartments once people moved into them; what would he discover if he were to finally go down there? Would he be moved by the trash piling up and the thugs who prowl along entryways and the drug dealers who have taken over the halls? Or would he maintain that he only designs them and has no control over what the residents do once there?
Ah, but "The Architect" is not about any of this, really. Sure, these notions are there, and the apartments serve as a steady location throughout the picture, but the film would rather tell the story of Leo's family and how it's falling apart. His wife (Isabella Rossellini) is suffering an obsessive-compulsive-induced breakdown; his son (Sebastian Stan) has dropped out of college and finds himself questioning a new friendship with a gay teen (Paul James); his 15-year-old daughter (Hayden Panettiere) is growing up all too quickly, sneaking off to nightclubs, unbuttoning blouses, flirting with truckers.
Let's compare this: gritty morality tale concerning urban decay vs. wimpy soap opera concerning suburban ennui. Is it even a question which storyline deserves our attention? Worse, Tauber, whose background is in theater and who makes his movie debut here, fails to retool the dialogue in a way that might prevent it from sounding stagey and stilted; words are clumsy and always feel too "written." And then he takes this problematic dialogue and presents it with a sluggish pace that ruins any connection we might otherwise have felt with the characters.
To their credit, the cast does what they can with the material. LaPaglia and Davis most notably - those are two fine performances, making the most out of go-nowhere characters. The younger actors stumble over their cumbersome subplots, and poor Rossellini gets stuck trying to salvage a sloppy, hackneyed role. (After all the dishes she smashes at the sight of any given mess, one half-expects her to next start screaming about wire hangers.)
Thanks to the acting, there are several moments in "The Architect" that work quite well, but taken as a whole, the thing refuses to gel. Tauber's focus is always on the wrong thing, leaving his film to become frustrating and dull.
Video & Audio
"The Architect" was filmed in conjunction with the HDNet cable network, and as such we get a vibrant transfer here, crisp and rich in detail. Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen.
There's little use for 5.1 in such a talk-heavy picture, but the Dolby surround track does quite well, as does the 2.0 stereo track also offered. Optional Spanish subtitles are included.
Tauber's commentary is typical director chatter, a few good stories mixed with the usual he-was-great-to-work-with filler.
Eight minutes of deleted scenes come with optional commentary from Tauber, who explains why much of the play's original dialogue wound up cut. Judging from these scenes, we're not missing much.
Finally, an episode of HDNet's talk series "Higher Definition" (28 minutes) features interviews on the making of the film.
When Tauber finds his focus, "The Architect" is worth watching. But Tauber rarely finds his focus. Rent It.