One Man’s Castle

Irwin Winkler’s Life as a House is for anyone who’s a sucker for a sob. There’s always a welcome mat for the magnetic Kevin Kline, but he’s up to his ears in suds in this sentimental story of an unhappy Los Angeles architect named George Monroe, a fruitcake so distanced from society that he lives in a condemned shack on a cliff overlooking the sea that is the eyesore of the neighborhood, and so eccentric that he takes his morning pee in full view of his next-door neighbor (Mary Steenburgen) and her teenage daughter (Jena Malone). The police and building inspectors have been summoned to his house so many times they stay for coffee. In movie-speak, this is supposed to pass for charm.

Clearly we are meant to like George, and because everybody likes Kevin Kline, we do like him for awhile, although nobody else does. George has lived such a messy, careless life that he’s ended up divorced, disillusioned, overworked and estranged from friends, family and, most of all, himself. His hostile ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) gave up on him years ago, remarried a prosperous businessman (Jamey Sheridan) and has two small boys of her own, in addition to George’s teenage son Sam, who hates his father, wears full makeup and has body piercings and blue hair. The story wafts along until George suddenly loses his job after 20 years, smashes up his office, inherits his freaked-out, antisocial son with suicidal tendencies for the summer, and gets diagnosed with terminal cancer all in the same day. For a self-absorbed weirdo who lives on junk food in a hut with one bed and no toilet, this is a full plate of poison to digest before sundown. George decides to tackle it one bite at a time, like humble pie.

With time and prescription painkillers running out, George decides to tear down the hovel he lives in and build a perfect, state-of-the-art dream house in four months, or die trying. His unconventional methods of taming the obnoxious 16-year-old Sam, who is already hooked on drugs and on his way to becoming a male prostitute, eventually get results. By the end of the summer, the house has become one final symbol of unselfish creativity to make up for a wasted life, Sam turns into a model teenager ready for the cover of Teen Digest , and everyone in George’s life grabs a sledgehammer to help out. The ex-wife who hates him, her new husband who hates him, the lost-cause teenager who hates him, the neighbors who hate him-you just wouldn’t believe how transformed and liberated they all become through Architectural Digest .

Fine acting and director Winkler’s admirable respect for traditional, straightforward narrative filmmaking sustain credibility up to a point. Kevin Kline is always a pleasure to watch, and a scene-stealer named HaydenChristensen makes something dazzling out of the troubled-teen clichés of Sam’s role. (He’s just been signed to star in the next two Star Wars installments, so you’ll be hearing a great deal more from him.)

But despite good intentions and an impressive cast, Life as a House hits more than its share of false notes, especially when the next-door neighbor (Ms. Steenburgen) starts encouraging her daughter’s sleepovers with Sam and then sleeps with the daughter’s old boyfriend herself. Or how about the meanest man on the block who, at the 11th hour of shutting down the construction on George’s new house, is recognized as a sexual predator and one of Sam’s former customers? There’s a fine line here between humor and nausea. And just when George and his ex-wife fall in love all over again, Sam turns into a preppie Prince Charming and everybody is hugging everybody like mad, the film goes shamelessly sentimental and the hills are alive with the sound of blubbering.

The resolutions are too pat, the characters too predictable, the situations too contrived to sustain even the most desperate desires for family entertainment. In the sappy finale, the house has a view all the way to Catalina, but there’s nobody home.

Missing The Mork

Kevin Spacey has made so many intelligent, high-minded movies that I guess he’s earned the right to an occasional flopola. In a disaster called K-PAX , he not only ends up with egg on his face; he’s wearing the whole goddamn omelet. The silly, misleading trailers try to market this head-scratcher as a comedy. As a brainless laugh riot, it’s as funny as a flu epidemic. As a drama, it’s an unintentional Robin Williams vehicle sour beyond its shelf life.

Mr. Spacey plays an unidentified hobo who turns up out of nowhere in the middle of Grand Central Terminal insisting that he’s an alien visitor named Prot from a planet called K-PAX, which sounds like a half-price generic toothpaste. Naturally, the cops drag him off to the cracker factory, where he becomes the patient of a bewildered psychiatrist (Jeff Bridges). The doc thinks he’s delusional, but the longer he treats him and the more Prot talks about K-PAX, the closer the shrink comes to rediscovering himself. Miraculously, the other patients begin to cure each other, the doctor’s kids fall in love with Prot and the family dog communicates with him in a special language. One by one, the other schizophrenics prepare to leave with him when Prot returns to K-PAX, but he can take only one guest.

As the hour of departure draws near, the shrink does some sleuthing that would make Sherlock Holmes salivate. Is Prot really a creature from a galaxy 1,000 light years away from our solar system who has dropped in to see what a banana tastes like? Or is he a tragic man from New Mexico whose wife and daughter were raped and killed by a rampaging psycho? In the end, what’s left of the man in the yearbook photo is under the bed and the real Prot has turned into a slug, a mollusk, a chanterelle mushroom or a duck-billed platypus, and he’s ready for his own sitcom.

British director Iain Softley doesn’t have a clue what to do with so much whimsy. In this Mork and Mindy meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Mr. Bridges looks catatonic for good reason, and Mr. Spacey lives up to his name in more ways than one. Looks like fun: He doesn’t shave, and he gets to do Mork voices. Otherwise, it’s a bad career day for them, and a bad movie day for everyone else.

One Man’s Castle