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Life As A House features the biggest and most obvious metaphor in cinema history, that of a house being built, which symbolises the relationship growing between father and son, among others. But despite reaching for your heartstrings from the outset and playing them like a violin this common writing tool actually works, which is basically the case with the film as a whole.

Movie
The story revolves mainly around a man named George Monroe (Kevin Kline). On one fateful day George is dealt two telling personal blows. First, he is fired from his job building small-scale models (yep, that house metaphor is further reaching than first thought) and decides to make a bit of an impact when he departs, so to speak. Secondly, George is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Not that we ever learn exactly what the cancer is and how his health keeps deteriorating, but we’re just meant to accept it.

With an ex-wife who doesn’t really want to know him and a son named Sam (Hayden Christensen) who spends more time getting high than speaking to his family George’s life seems to be in one big heap. Which is precisely when he decides to rebuild the shack he inherited long ago, something he’s been meaning to do for a long time. And who better to do it with than your drug-taking, face-piercing, corpse of a son? George senses the perfect time to actually get to know his son whilst demolishing the house he has despised for so many years.

Anger management

We also learn that George’s ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) is also very unhappy. Her new husband is hard on her two other children, Sam can’t stand him at all and Robin has doubts as to whether she’s doing things right. And when George starts out on his building adventure she sees him in a whole different light and could well be enjoying herself around him once again.

Meanwhile, next door there’s Colleen (Mary Steenburgen) and her daughter Alyssa (Jena Malone). Alyssa immediately takes to Sam and despite all Sam’s eye make-up we see that the feeling could be mutual. The other neighbour is just a royal pain in the behind, basically because George’s dog keeps messing with the guy’s lawn and pissing on his newspaper. He’s the source of most of the small chuckles dotted in and around the story to lighten the mood a little.

With all those characters and situations you’d be forgiven for losing sight of the story. But it’s all woven in pretty tightly so you’ll never be overpowered by any major issue other than the relationship between George and his son. While the story includes a heap of other little dramas including small time prostitution, homosexuality, drug use and the older woman/younger man relationship most of them are touched on so briefly if you blink they’ll pass you by.

In amongst the “house” metaphor are a number of other familiar plot lines all thrown together to provide some semblance of a unique story. There’s the whole terminally-ill-man-finds-self theme, the father-deranged son-form-a-bond storyline, the very familiar ex-wife-falls-back-in-love-with-ex-husband story and a bunch of others that are touched upon at some point in time. But by throwing them all in together the familiarity with other films begins to wane. It does have a very American Beauty-like tone at various points in the story but overall is actually very far from it.

Kline does a brilliant job as George and not just because he plays someone dying of cancer. There may be a number of actors who could fit this role but Kline shows he can really turn it on when it’s needed. His rapport with the other actors is also very good, particularly with his screen son played by Hayden Christensen (who was just about to launch into Episode Two at the time). Christensen is quite good in a very attractive role for an aspiring actor and pulls off the whole angry/not angry situation very well. Jena Malone shines as a young girl trying to find herself, hopefully leading to many more great roles such as this one in the future. It’s hard to think she’s still only sixteen because the performance is well beyond her years. Steenburgen and Thomas give great support as well, particularly Steenburgen as she provides a few giggles towards the end.

Pondering (what's left of) life

If you’re not a fan of sentiment and emotion you’ll most likely want to steer clear of this one. You’ll be able to tell from the start that the film doesn’t have the same wit and off-beat drama that American Beauty does, so parallels that you can draw between the two merely lead to the conclusion that Life As A House is just its poor cousin. But thanks to some really fine performances and enough going on around the central characters you’ll find yourself drawn into the story. It’s very hard to pick the audience reaction with this one, which is supported by the fact that the film received very mixed reviews in the media upon its release. Take a look and decide for yourself, I’d suggest.

Video
Roadshow have come through with the goods again with another fine visual transfer. Presented in 2.35:1 and 16:9 enhanced, the film can’t look any better on the small screen. Colours are wonderfully vibrant, the print is totally clean and there are no signs of aliasing or artefacts at all in this transfer. The look of the film is very soft so the sharpness is down a little but that may have been a result of an aesthetic decision on behalf of the director. Nevertheless it’s not distraction at all so your eyes will remain firmly on the film rather than any faults in the transfer. A great job by Roadshow again.

Audio
A surprising choice for a DTS soundtrack, but who’s complaining? Included on this disc is a DTS 5.1 soundtrack and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well.  And it’s probably the first time I’ve made a comparison and couldn’t find any noticeable difference save for a slight increase in volume. This adds weight to the theory at the moment that DTS tracks don’t necessarily mean a step up from DD 5.1. Something to think about...

That said, both tracks feature good surround use with ambient sounds (waves, etc) and effects (building the house, for example). There’s not a lot else for the rears to do save for pump out a little music. They work hardest, along with the subwoofer, when Sam’s hardcore Marilyn Manson tunes are belting out of his stereo among a couple of other clichéd teen-angst bands thrown in to depict Sam’s outlook on life. The rest of the score is by a man named Mark Isham, who has composed the music for a stack of middle-range films over the years, the most notable being the score for Blade in 1998. The orchestral sounds add more weight to all the sentiment being thrown around but that’s precisely what the script calls for, so you can’t really fault the man on this one.

Shower shenanigans

Extras
A small extras package awaits us as we delve into the All Access Pass section from the main menu.

First up is the audio commentary with producer/director Irwin Winkler, producer Rob Cowan and writer Mark Andrus. It’s good to hear all three impart their thoughts on the production because individually none of them would’ve had enough to say. But together they work quite well covering a lot of aspects of the production, particularly the problems associated with working from two different locations as well as giving us an insight into the casting, a rare occurrence from directors on DVD commentaries these days.

Also included on the disc are four deleted scenes with optional commentary from the three guys in the main commentary track. The first two are basically the same scene using a different location and a different actor playing the police officer. The other two are scenes involving Sam, the first with his father and the second with Alyssa. The four scenes are of very high quality, suggesting they almost made the final cut. The commentary gives us an insight into why the scenes were cut and how they were meant to fit in to the film.

The two original documentaries are the guts of the making-of material. Inside Life As A House contains a stack of behind the scenes material as well as interviews with all the main cast and crew and runs for around 28 minutes. It’s a cut above the standard promotional fare and is well worth a look. From The Ground Up talks more about the whole house metaphor, as if it weren’t really obvious already. Running for around 10 minutes, this featurette looks at the location, designs for the shack and the house as well as featuring interviews with Kline, Christensen and Irwin Winkler. Fans of the film will enjoy looking at how the constructions came about.

"Hi, ho, it's off to work we go."

The theatrical press kit is just some text-based information on the production, the cast and the crew. All major cast and crew members are covered and the production is awarded around ten pages of quotes and other material. Lastly, there’s the theatrical trailer, which looks nothing like the trailer that screen in Australian cinemas a while back. Still, it does some up the movie quite well.

Overall
While all the sentiment and emotion probably narrows down the film’s audience a little, Life As A House still has its merits. Thanks to some solid acting lead by the brilliant Kevin Kline the film works as a straight out drama with a heap of familiar plot lines, not to mention a very obvious metaphor. There’s nothing really out of the ordinary here but drama fans might well enjoy this one. The video and audio are very good while there are a few extras to add a bit of weight to the disc.


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