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Cinema Signal:


House of Sand and Fog
by Andre Dubus III

The book on which this film is based


. "House of Sand and Fog"

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 mail.

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 She hires a lawyer who assures her that the eviction order will be rescinded but while the legal machinery is working its way through the beaurocracy, the house is put up for auction.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 greed.

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 of admiration.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


The Soundtrack album




Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Off base
Site Rating: 2

I understood Kathy to be a drug and alcohol addict left by her husband. If that doesn't cause bad judgement (& failure to open your mail tell me what does). I had no trouble understanding the characters as drawn by this tightly drawn script.

                                                          ~~ Irene
[Reviewer's note: My problem is not in understanding the character but in building some sympathy for her. Without caring, vital involvement is lost and, with it, the power of the drama. ~~ FC

                                   - - - - - - - -
Well written
I agree with the review
Site Rating: 8

Too much fog! What is that movie about? Does a house, on it's own, provide tha basis for a life, or a family? Are they confronting muslim and american culture? I haven't found anything related to this, excepting Nadi's finding out.

                                                          ~~ mar
Very well written
I agree with the review
Site Rating: 9

Beautiful and supposedly intelligent, normally, Connelly was a total blank in this movie. A total miscast.

                                                          ~~ non
Site rating: 10

The reviewer wasn't concentrating on the detail of the film, has little or no understanding of human nature and is very quick to apply inappropriate labels which cloud his reading of the film. Back to college I think.

                                                          ~~ Mike A.



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Naderah Behrani comes to the aid of Jennifer Connelly
after a misstep


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