Shaky foundation

Conflicted morals depreciate House

The early '90s saw a spate of dystopian films — Grand Canyon (1991), Falling Down (1993), Short Cuts (1993) — about the disintegration of society from without. The breakdown of civility, social apathy, rampant crime, road rage, all the bugaboos of modern city and suburban life became the fodder of this "What to Do?" cinema.

Now that macro trend for analyzing what ails us as a nation has gone micro, coming home to roost in the familial angst of writer Alan Ball's American Beauty and "Six Feet Under," and the thoughtful, inward-directed goombas of "The Sopranos." Family is the ailing social body yet again in Irwin Winkler's (28 Days, The Net) manipulative, warm-and-fuzzy yuppie tearjerker about the healing power of good real estate, Life as a House.

You can't fix the world, but Life As a House suggests you can heal a family. And George Monroe's (Kevin Kline) corroded post-nuclear unit is sorely in need of fixing. Divorced for the past 10 years from his bitter, still furious wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has since remarried, George has lost emotional touch with their teenage son Sam (Hayden Christensen), a Marilyn Manson disciple whose every new piercing is another nail in the parental coffin. Like Thora Birch in American Beauty or Kirsten Dunst in Crazy/Beautiful, Sam is a teen killed with yuppie kindness: smothered with every material comfort but denied the attentions of his career-obsessed, Mercedes-driving parents.

Fired from his architectural firm by his unctuous boss, George learns his anatomy is conspiring against him, too. Terminal cancer has afforded him only a few months to live. George begins a course to mend his dysfunctional relationship with his son and moves the shrieking, pill-popping, trick-turning brat to his decrepit home perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean for the summer. In one summer of tough-love carpentry, George struggles to heal their failed relationship by — cue symbolism — demolishing his own father's decaying wooden shack and building a new, happy dream home for Sam.

Why George chooses a wealthy suburban enclave of $2 million McMansions filled with divorcees, yuppie scum and bitchy retirees to make his stand, however, is a hole in Mark Andrus' (As Good As It Gets) screenplay. George's therapeutic home building in Moneysville is as incongruous as planting an organic vegetable garden on the grounds of a chemical plant.

Kline is certainly a better, more subtle actor than Robin Williams, but the actors share a common career arc and a taste for roles that bring out a wounded, New Age teariness in men trying against rotten odds to do the best they can. In a kind of moral penance for his wrongs as a daddy and husband, George becomes a Christ-like figure, a humble, principled carpenter who now tackles the job of noble self-sacrifice whilst laying down a legacy for his son.

Life as a House is a typically conflicted "moral" Hollywood drama. Its sterling idealism about loving families where children are hugged and fathers are present is compromised by the stench of sleazy moral relativity that leaks like rotting compost from beneath all of that delicate concern. For every bit of hand-wringing about teenagers pimping themselves, doping up or dropping out, there's another played-for-comedy cutesy moment — a suburban sexpot Mom (Mary Steenburgen) seducing her teenage daughter's boyfriend, or George proving he's still got it where the ladies are concerned when Sam's girlfriend hops into his bed and gets fresh.

Winkler's narrative vision is so limited that he views romantic coupling as the quick fix to his characters' problems and seems to suggest that a girlfriend is the answer to young Sam's agony. His film practically endorses teen sex with the unstated contention: "At least he's not gay!"

Life as a House is an undeniable crowd-pleaser that, like another suburban zeitgeist piece, American Beauty, will function as a kind of homegrown art film, offering the kind of "insightful" commentary most mainstream fare doesn't. It will probably render weak-kneed and weepy many who feel alienated from their children or buffered from genuine, gritty experience by too much money. Life as a House has just enough passion to suggest Winkler himself has grappled with some of these issues. But it's a self-congratulatory, ultimately self-aggrandizing critique of yuppiedom Winkler is selling here, one that assumes you can have your Mercedes and McMansion, too, as long as you remember to hug the kids and respect the local building codes.??