Film Reviews

Death Wish

Like the lovable baseball catcher in Bang the Drum Slowly, like John Wayne's poignant gunfighter in The Shootist, like hundreds of doomed movie protagonists before him, the hero of Life As a House doesn't have long to live. By the second reel, you may find yourself wishing his time on the planet was even shorter.

The fellow's name is George Monroe, he's portrayed (to the sanctimonious hilt) by Kevin Kline, and he embodies every cliché about dread diseases, personal regrets and last-ditch redemption four generations of committed Hollywood sentimentalists have managed to concoct. To begin with, George's biography is a catalogue of failures: His marriage broke up 10 years ago. He lives like a scruffy bohemian in a rickety shack that has a nice view of the Pacific. His estranged teenage son, Sam (Hayden Christensen), is heavily pierced and hopelessly alienated. George's middle-class neighbors don't like the weirdo in their midst any better than he likes himself. When he loses his job as a builder of architectural models, we can practically hear the bonk! as he hits bottom. We can also feel the moviemakers -- director Irwin Winkler and screenwriter Mark Andrus -- starting to yank our chains. Because, along with his other problems, our hero has terminal cancer.

It will come as a surprise to no one that George Monroe's fond final wish before joining Camille and Brian Piccolo in movie heaven is to lift himself out of the depths -- and to reclaim his son's lost love. To that end, he takes to bashing his filthy hovel with a sledgehammer. In its place, we learn, he means to build the house he's always meant to build but never got around to starting. Oh, yes, he wants his son to help.

That siren you hear means every last one of us poor popcorn-munchers is now on heightened symbolism alert. The crisis is unlikely to pass until George does.

Need we add that unlike his life up to now, George Monroe's heartwarming construction project turns out to be an amazingly trouble-free experience? Certainly it's a lot less trying than Cary Grant's when he moved his city-bound family to rural Connecticut in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By contrast, Mr. Monroe's dream house rises miraculously on its pretty perch overlooking the ocean. The formerly angry and contentious members of his family eventually pitch in, along with almost everyone else within the sound of his holy nail-pounding. Magically turned into craftsmen, they help turn one man's long-deferred dream into, yep, reality.

All this without noble George breathing a single word to anyone about his impending death.

Oh, our master builder has a few hurdles to clear. For one thing, his kid would rather sniff glue than hang wallpaper, and Dad has to make all kinds of heroic efforts to turn the boy around. But, hey, George Monroe turns out to be pretty good in the heroism department once he gets warmed up. He leaps off a high cliff into the pounding surf below to show young Sam what guts and romantic potential he has, and he tells the youngster about all the times he wanted to kill his own father. Almost before you can say trans-for-may-shun, the boy has canned his nose rings and is raising high the roof beams. Quite a change of venue for Christensen, who plays young Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones.

Next, George's ex-wife, Robin (The English Patient's Kristin Scott Thomas), falls under his spell. Unhappily remarried to (what else?) an unfeeling materialist named Peter (Jamey Sheridan), she soon discovers that the flame still burns for her creative, money-means-nothing ex -- especially now that he's in the home-improvement business. Does this turn of events strain credulity? Sure, but let's not forget that Andrus is one of the two writers who mismatched obsessive-compulsive Jack Nicholson and salt-of-the-earth Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. After Robin, the rest of the dominoes fall into place. The local beat cop (Scott Bakula), Sam's troubled school pal Josh (Ian Somerhalder), even George's disapproving neighbors -- who include Mary Steenburgen and her screen daughter, Jena Malone -- soon find redemption of their own in his symbolic house-raising quest. By the time our protagonist starts to get really sick, the entire building site fairly glows with heavenly light.

Like its notable and more gratifying forebears in the disease-movie genre, Life As a House goes in for some photogenic suffering. Greta Garbo's pulmonary distress and Robert De Niro's inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher are mirrored here by the sights of Kline struggling to get out of bed, stashing his industrial-strength painkillers in a pair of athletic socks and passing out from exhaustion in mid-hammer thrust. It's only a matter of time until son, assorted next-door teenagers, beat cop, helpful neighbors, ex-wife and even ex-wife's new husband and their two kids are on to him, mortality-wise. Inspired by his legacy-building, all of them hustle their butts off to get the storm windows installed and, yes, the Christmas lights up, before Saint George must take to his bed.

Director Winkler -- better known as the producer of such terrific films as the original Rocky, Raging Bull and The Right Stuff -- has no qualms about spooning out the sap, and Kline's cloying, mawkish performance -- all quiet self-sacrifice and synthetic nobility, mixed with the odd wisecrack -- is likely to make all but the most devoted three-hankie crowd squirm in its seats. If you must see a movie soon in which a dying man redeems himself while redeeming a sullen teenager with purple hair, Christine Lahti's My First Mister is a better bet -- sharper, funnier, a little stingier with the hearts and flowers. As for House, it's one piece of real estate better left on the open market.

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Bill Gallo