"Life as a House" begins with a father and a son who are far from admirable types. By the end of the film, after the father-son pair has completed tearing down a house and building a new one, both men have redeemed themselves in each other's estimation (as well as the world's). If only life were so easy...
In the movie, Kevin Kline (Best Supporting Actor winner for his role in "A Fish Called Wanda") plays George, a model-maker who works at an architecture firm. Since his skills are no longer needed--he refuses to use computers--his firm fires him. George isn't just fired, though--he's also dying from cancer. Suddenly, he feels the urge to tear down his ramshackle house and to build a beautiful dream home on his cliff-side, ocean-facing property.
Sam (Hayden Christensen, who plays Anakin Skywalker in "Star Wars" 2 and 3), George's son, lives with George's ex-wife (now married to another fellow). Sam has all sorts of piercings, dyes his hair blue, wears make-up, sniffs all sorts of chemicals, and asphyxiates himself first thing in the morning. George wants Sam to spend the summer with him so that they can build the new house together. George has been a lousy father-figure, so he wants to "do the right thing" before he dies.
This is a very simple story that plays for two hours when it could've been resolved in half the time. The characters "grow" only because the script tells them to do so, not because we see them experience any true changes in their personalities.
A bunch of notable actors appear in "Life as a House," including Kristin Scott Thomas as George's ex-wife, Jena Malone as Sam's neighborly love interest, Mary Steenburgen as another neighbor who has sex with a teenage pimp/drug dealer, and Scott Bakula and Sam Robards (both appeared as gay lovers in "American Beauty"). The actors bring a considerable amount of skill to the project, and they merit the audience's attention, even in a movie with such a pedestrian script.
Although the film played in theatres with 2.35:1 image framing, legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond requested that the film be transferred to DVD as a 2.10:1 anamorphic widescreen print. I don't know Mr. Zsigmond's reasons for such a request, but I suppose that not much information is lost at the sides of the image. At any rate, the transfer seems a bit schizophrenic. Foreground objects as well as the actors appear just fine on my TV screen, but there is a lot of background grain or haze, especially during the first thirty minutes of the movie. The transfer is simultaneously stable and unstable. For the most part, though, the strong, rich colors captured by the camera make up for any unpleasantries caused by the aforementioned problems.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English audio track will not win any awards or special notices, but it does an above-average job of conveying the atmosphere of the film. Since most of the action takes place outdoors while George and Sam are building the house, you'll hear a good deal of ambient noises from the rear speakers--crashing waves, birds, rustling leaves, etc. The subwoofer joins in on the fun when songs the characters decide to destroy their ears with blasting music. There's not a whole lot of directionality, but the sound stage is fairly wide for a drama such as this one.
There are two other primary audio tracks--DD 2.0 surround English and DTS 5.1 English. English subtitles and closed captions support the audio.
Of substantive importance is the audio commentary by producer/director Irwin Winkler, producer Rob Cowan, and screenwriter Mark Andrus. The three filmmakers discuss various inspirations for the story as well as comment directly about key scenes in the film.
The "Character Building: Inside ‘Life as a House'" featurette is a fairly standard "making of" piece that provides background information on how the project was started. Obviously, there are on-the-set interviews with cast members, and it's always of some interest to hear what an actor has to say about his/her understanding of the script's goals.
The "From the Ground Up" featurette briefly examines the creation of the sets (the little cul-de-sac in which George lives) as well as the two houses built on George's lot.
I liked the way that New Line handled the inclusion of four deleted scenes with optional audio commentary. Each deleted scene begins and ends with snippets of footage from the final cut, so you can get a sense of where the deleted material would've appeared in a longer version of the movie. The first two scenes are of particular interest. Basically, the same sequence occurs with one of the characters being played by two different actors. You get a chance to see what it is like when cast changes take place in the middle of production.
Navigating through the "Theatrical Press Kit" sections of the DVD will lead you to text pages concerning Production Notes and Cast/Crew biographies/filmographies. There is also a theatrical trailer.
On the main menu, clicking on the New Line logo gives you access to the DVD's production credits.
DVD-ROM extras include a script/screen viewer that allows you to read the screenplay while you watch the movie, the film's complete website encoded onto the DVD, and links to New Line Internet destinations.
Chapter listings are found on the inside flap of the snapper case.
I find myself conflicted over rating the film a "five" or a "six." The actors invest their characters with much conviction, especially Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Hayden Christensen. Despite the fact that I didn't believe his character's too-quick transformation (an issue with the script), I felt that Christensen did a commendable job playing Sam. Still, as good as the cast is, it can not overcome the fact that "Life as a House" tells a rather simplistic story and doesn't delve as deep into the characters' lives as it might have (and should have). When a film's principal message is that "love conquers all, even death," then you know that you're treading on predictable territory. I recommend the movie to anyone interested in seeing it, but I won't browbeat people into doing so.