This is a house built on a shaky foundation with a few essential nails
missing. Despite fine acting, it's difficult to impossible to buy into the
premise from the start. The greatest failure is in the problem of generating
sympathy for the central character, the dispossessed heroine.
An apparently unwitting Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is evicted from the
home she grew up in by a team of legal and law enforcement officers
brandishing a court order citing unpaid back taxes. Deputy Sheriff Lester
Burdon (Ron Eldard) takes a good look at the unfortunate girl and, by virtue
of admiration and pity, helps her pack and find a place to stay. It won't be
long before he's in flat out love.
The camera, during this sequence, frames on a pile of unread mail scattered
inside Kathy's mail-slotted front door. The back story here is that she
inherited her home from her dead father. She received a county bill for
taxes which she didn't owe, went to the county tax office where she was told
that the bill was in error and from then on hasn't bothered to read her
She makes a living as a house cleaner, so we are asked to believe, first,
that this outstandingly beautiful woman can't find better work and that her
chosen occupation to tidy up her clients' homes has no application in her
own. This contradiction seems to stem from the writer's need to set up the
basis for the drama despite inconsistency in the character. But, this isn't
the weakest link in the chain. Her general helplessness is.
So now, for $500 or so of back taxes she can't, won't and shouldn't have to
pay, she's faced with the loss of the home she grew up in. She hires a
lawyer who assures her that the eviction order will be rescinded but while
the legal machinery is working its way through the beaurocracy, the house is
put up for auction.
Before she knows it, Colonel Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an exile from Iran
holding down two jobs to pay for his upper class digs, buys it for an
outrageously low $45,000. He cannily sees it as an investment that should
turn a nice profit, allowing him to move his wife and son into their own
place, and freeing him from the roadwork and convenience store jobs. Besides
that astute play, this is one stubborn dude whose unmovability is a study in
So, when Kathy comes to him for a face to face plea for him to return the
house to her and reclaim his 45K, he's having none of it. When Deputy
Lester, now fully involved in a relationship with Kathy goes over to put the
strong arm of intimidation on him, he knows better than to crumble in fear.
He's adamant in his plan to complete his venture and, when he puts the house
up for sale and finds that the asking price is 3 times what he paid, his
position is solidified even more, in stucco.
Kathy, of course, won't relent. Against advice of counsel and lover, she
pays a visit to the house as workmen are tearing off a section of roof in
order to install a "widow's walk" rampart. Shocked and angered, she climbs
the workmen's ladder to stop them and steps on three nails in a 2x4 on the
way down. This brings her into the company of Behrani's sweet wife Naderah
(Shohreh Aghdashloo) who is the accomodating opposite of her husband and
immediately sets to care for her visitor.
Naderah Behrani should have been the star of this piece. She's the only
character in view that inspires sympathy, warmth, and human understanding.
She is full of the fears that travelled with her from the dangers in her
homeland, Iran, but always with time and graciousness for a needful person.
Aghdashloo's depiction of this woman is the anchor of sympathy we attach to
but the peripheral role isn't central enough to make the drama work.
Writer-director Vadim Perelman, working from a novel by Andre Dubus III, does
his best to keep Kathy's life and attainments simple, in order to sell us on
the idea that she's a person who might ignore her mail to the point of
getting herself into such a fabricated mess. As this is a trait that puts
every other event in motion, it's a matter of critical importance. He then
casts the uniquely fascinating Jennifer Connelly and thinks he can convince
us that she has no man in her life nor any prospects until the married
sheriff comes along.
But, though the story is quite well structured, these are weakening
character misjudgments. Considering how his most potentially sympathetic
character handled her real estate interests, we are forced to the
understanding that she's a flake prone to withdrawing from responsibility.
But the more convincing this is, the more difficult it becomes to get on her
side. Given her loser traits, sympathy is underminded like a house with
hungry termites. The unforeseen consequences of every character's decisions
that flow from these initial ones are splintered beyond repair. Unless, of
course, you're enamored of the actress playing the part enough to overlook
the writing failures. Can't blame you if you do. She's aces.
Ben Kingsley is his stiff necked best, studiously unbendable, controlled,
contained, distant in every aspect, a character type he brought to perfection
in "Sexy Beast." And, while
his almost villainous rigidity is so well defined, and the glimpse into the
lives of Iranian exiles are valuably drawn, the character of his teenage son
Esmail (Jonny Ahdout) is not, making his last act of desperation a mere
device to provide a climax. But that weak spot isn't crucial since the
House's failure to convince us ran out of nails way before that.
Connelly, a favorite since I was awed by her in "Dark City", can't pull it
out. Miscast or badly written, the movie's structural weakness and milking
for melodrama resists her very capable performance. Her physical and
intellectual appeal behind a full fledged effort can't achieve what the
script doesn't provide.
The positive memory I carry out of the theatre is of the marvelously
portrayed Naderah (aka Nadi, Shohreh Aghdashloo), wife, mother, cornerstone
~~ Jules Brenner