Out of all genres and subgenres that exists, the melodrama has to be my least favorite. Not in theory, mind you - I certainly appreciate a film that is able to wring emotion from finely written characters and situations. It's just that, with the recent films in the genre, that has not been the case - see "Patch Adams" or one of many Chris Columbus-directed pictures. "Life as a House", last Winter's picture starring Kevin Kline and directed by Irwin Winkler, is a picture generally has the right idea about the tone, but it's the material itself that comes up as disagreeable or simply uneven. It's "American Beauty Redux", although not as entertaining, a bit more manipulative and less skillfully written.
The film stars Kline as George, an architect who finds that he as been let go from his job early on in the picture. Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), George's ex-wife, is now locked into an unhappy marriage and takes care of Sam (Hayden Christensen), the depressed and punk son of the two. There's also Coleen (Mary Steenburgen), the next-door neighbor to George, and her daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone).
George recieves a severance package after being fired (to be honest, I really didn't understand the specifics of why he was fired; the scene is not well-written). Still, he's somewhat bittersweetly happy to be rid of a workplace that, according to him, he was never really fond of in the first place. To make things even worse, George recieves another announcement about his health that is greatly more saddening.
Directly after, George decides that he wants to replace the old, worn shack that he's been living in with a nicer, new place. He has his son help him along with the construction and - wouldn't you know it - they start building their relationship back up again, too. I don't want to be that cynical about it, but it's difficult to see past some of the elements of the picture that seem a bit manipulative. This is one of those pictures where, during the most moving moment, we aren't allowed just to see the genuinely moving emotions of the actors on their faces, they also are accompanied by a swell of heart-warming score from Mark Isham, who usually provides such scores. The film's other main fault is that it attempts to handle too many issues when it could have been more interesting focusing on just a few. Some of the supporting characters could have been a bit better developed, as well.
Still, I must say that the acting in the film often overcomes the melodrama. Kline offers a sincere, involving and realistic performance that is the film's best; while some of Spacey's sharp-timing that he brought to the "American Beauty" character would have been appreciated, Kline still holds the interest nicely. Hayden Christensen, soon to be seen in the next "Star Wars" picture, is also fairly good. While his punk character is a bit annoying and a brat at first, he does convey the turn into more mild-mannered well. Otherwise, Scott-Thomas' character is a bit frosty (although good in scenes where she and Kline's characters rekindle their romance), but Jena Malone is enjoyable as the girl-next-door to both George and Sam.
Overall, I didn't really like "Life as a House", but I didn't completely dislike it, either. The dialogue is uneven, veering from being insightful and interesting to TV movie-of-the-week quality. Winkler's direction is a bit bland and uninspired. The performances attempt to make the most of the material well, but there's really not much in the way of surprises along the way.
VIDEO: New Line presents "Life as a House" in 2.10:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film was shown in 2.35:1 in theaters, but has apparently been recomposed to 2.10:1 for this release by cinematographer Vilmos Zigmond, who also approved the transfer. The presentation itself is a nice piece of work, although not one of the finest of New Line's excellent releases in recent years. Sharpness and detail are good, if not impressive, as the film does have a slightly soft look at times. Some darker scenes could also look a bit murky.
Flaws were apparent, but not that irritating. Some very slight edge enhancement and a trace or two of pixelation were seen. Yet, no print flaws were apparent - not even a speck or spot. Colors looked natural and vivid throughout, appearing well-saturated and free of smearing or other flaws.
SOUND: While this isn't exactly "The Fast and the Furious", I was more than surprised with the 5.1 (available in DTS or Dolby Digital) soundtrack for "Life as a House". The interior scenes are front-heavy, mainly focusing on the dialogue between characters or Isham's score. Once the film moves outside though, there's a lot of convincing, distinct ambient sounds that are very pleasant and enveloping. Aside from some nice ambience and a few sound effects, the surrounds also lend themselves nicely to the score; although I wasn't thrilled with the music, it at least sounded very good. Dialogue sounded crisp and natural, as well. The DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks were very similar, although the DTS soundtrack delivered the music a bit more warmly and the ambience seemed a bit more natural.
MENUS: The main menu contains very nice, very subtle animation and ambient ocean sounds in Dolby Digital 5.1. Some of the sub-menus are also elegantly animated.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Irwin Winkler, writer Mark Andrus and producer Rob Cowan. This is a fairly informative, if not that interesting, commentary. The three do a fair amount of narration of what's currently going on on-screen, but also reveal some decent information about the production and the workings with the actors. Overall, while a few gems were present here and there throughout the track, I thought this commentary got slow quickly.
Documentaries: Two documentaries are included; Character Building is a 24-minute piece and From The Ground Up is a 10-minute featurette. The former is an occasionally interesting discussion of the acting by the actors and the director while the later is a slight look at the building of the house itself. If you didn't get the metaphor for building the house as the character's life (and who didn't?), it's stated once again here.
Also: The film's trailer (2.35:1/5.1) and theatrical text press kit, 4 deleted scenes (with optional commentary) and DVD-ROM script-to-screen and web-link.
Final Thoughts: "Life as a House" contains good performances, but it falls prey to many of the elements of this kind of film that I really dislike. New Line's DVD provides very good audio and video quality, with decent supplements. Those interested should try as a rental first; those who liked the film should certainly purchase.