Cinema Signal:

. "Life As a House"

The subject here is a killer disease, in this case cancer, giving someone a short time to live and to see what he does with his remaining time and how what he does affects those he loves. It uses as its metaphor the reconstruction of a house. It's a disease movie with an idea that can be considered overdone and corny but the skills of its lead actor makes it palatable for an audience looking for comfort and sentimentality.

George Monroe (Kevin Kline) is an architect who does things the old fashioned way. He constructs models of the houses he designs and refuses to resort to CAD-CAM software on a computer. The architectural design firm he works for is virtually decorated with his models, showing a certain pride in his accomplishments over the last several decades. In spite of that, they can't take him any more and give him his walking papers. And, just when he discovers he has a short time to live.

His ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) is remarried to wealthy Peter (Jamey Sheridan) but her eldest son Sam (Hayden Christensen), a card-carrying punk freak-out, is George's. The other two boys are Peter's. There are two problems: Sam is off-the-charts rebellious and out of control and Robin is growing discontent with Peter who is emotionally challenged by his material outlook.

George decides that the best thing he can do with the remainder of his life would be to reattach himself to his son and to teach him a things or two about reconstruction. With Robin's consent, he demands Sam live with him in his decrepit old house handed down to him by his dead, domineering father (on a fabulous promontory overlooking the sea -- very expensive real estate), so that the two of them can tear it down and rebuild a substantial mortise and tenon craftsman house together. This happens just when Sam is about to make life altering decisions that will drag him down to the depths of depravity.

George is caring, skilled, patient beyond Job, and extremely sympathetic to one and all. He breaks down the old house, setting up temporary living quarters for himself and his son in the garage, and prods Sam to help, for which he will be paid. At the same time, Robin is hanging out to lend a hand, furnish lunches, and see how Sam is doing. But something else is also going on.

It sounds like a sappy tear-jerker but the manner in which Kline plays George lifts it slightly from a simple morass of sadness and pity. Such are his skills that while he's giving you his slant on the meaning of life (somewhat wrapped up in sanctimony) he convinces you you're watching dramatic realism. By the time everyone reaches the new awarenesses of their lives, we the audience care about the outcome and the points the filmmakers intended are about as well expressed as such a framework can support.

Irwin Winkler directed with that taste for grossly sentimental subject matter he exhibited with his previous "At First Sight". While he's a far more prodigious producer (the "Rocky" series), if he's not careful, he's going to get type cast as a director for the infirm if the unreality of the surprise at the end hasn't already locked him into that precious cubbyhole.

Supporting players are just that. Hayden Christensen's Sam is there to provide a substantial barrier to cross; the exquisitely refined and classy Kristin Scott Thomas' role could have been played by many others (which is not to say she's wasted here -- she's always a pleasure to watch); Jamey Sheridan is ready for considerably weightier roles than he's afforded, and on down the cast list. For better or worse, this is a Kevin Kline enterprise.

If you go for familial sentimentality, however, "My First Mister" is a more thought provoking experience not quite so soaked in reverential affectation.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




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