At one point in "Life as a House," one character tells another, "You're predictable." He might as well be talking about this film, a weepy melodrama/comedy that is not only the most transparently obvious movie in recent memory, but it also swipes heavily from "The Ice Storm" and "American Beauty." (It even features two actors from each of those movies.)
However, as cornball and manipulative as "Life as a House" is, it's hard to write it off as just "American Beauty Lite." For one thing, its cast is so likable and so earnest that it's difficult to resist getting swept up in its clunky machinations.
Also, as emotionally strenuous as the past couple of months have been for most of us, it's a treat to see a simple film about people trying to be nicer and kinder to each other as well as trying to change themselves for the better.
That pretty much sums up the state of mind of George Monroe (Kevin Kline), a middle-aged architect whose life has fallen apart. He's just lost his job, and now he's discovered he has terminal cancer and only a handful of months to live.
Rather than explore what are likely to be unsuccessful treatment options, George decides to reach out to the estranged members of his family, including his ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas) and their troubled teenage son Sam (Hayden Christensen).
George's plan is to get them involved with building a house, a dream project that he's been talking about for 20 years. Unfortunately, Sam isn't thrilled at the prospect of spending time with his father, much less doing manual labor, and Robin questions his motives (at this point, he hasn't revealed to either one of them that he's dying).
Yes, the house is a none-too-subtle metaphor for its main character's life, but Mark Andrus' script has a certain prickliness that sets it apart from most of the competition and keeps this film from being as overwhelmingly sappy as one of those made-for-cable-movies from the Lifetime channel.
Director Irwin Winkler ("At First Sight") displays a lighter touch than you'd expect, though he's fortunate to have this cast. And that includes star-in-the-making Christensen who is Anakin Skywalker in the next "Star Wars" prequel. Judging by his moody performance here, George Lucas may have made the right choice.
The always-appealing Kline is the glue that holds it together, and his chemistry with co-star Scott Thomas is believable.
"Life as a House" is rated R for occasional use of strong, R-rated profanity, scenes depicting drug use (including use of inhalants and prescription drug abuse), crude humor and use of vulgar slang terms, simulated sex and sex acts, brief nudity male and female, and brief violence (a temper tantrum). Running time: 123 minutes.