Alejandro Agresti’s The Lake House, from a screenplay by David Auburn, is based on a Korean film, Il Mare, which I have not seen and cannot really imagine. This is to say that The Lake House is longer on a kind of furtive charm than on narrative logic. How, people are asking in and out of print, can a man and a woman fall in love by mail postmarked two years apart, his letters written and delivered to the lake house mailbox in 2004, and hers in 2006? The question is never really answered, so, as you might imagine, the “romance” is one long saga of frustration.
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are reunited for the first time since their huge box-office hit Speed (1994), the mad-bomber/perpetual-motion/booby-trapped-runaway-bus thriller in which their characters are caught in a tense rather than cute encounter, surviving last-minute destruction just barely for a fade-out clinch. They were both 29 at the time; now they are playing a romantic team at 41, which, in movie terms, is impossibly late to find the great love of one’s life. Of course, Speed was no love story drenched with feeling and chemistry. Its kinetic frenzies did not provide the quiet moments of mutual adoration most romances require. Hence, Keanu and Sandra never had much practice looking deeply into each other’s eyes.
Fortunately, Mr. Agresti and Mr. Auburn have distanced their lead characters from their time-travel destiny by imposing a mostly abstract visual style full of towering overhead shots and views of Chicago’s architectural and natural landmarks—not to mention innumerable camera movements suggesting quasi-magical passages of time.
It helps that Mr. Reeves’ character, Alex Wyler, is a visionary developer whose own father designed the lake house in which Wyler and Ms. Bullock’s Dr. Kate Forster both live, though two years apart. These sci-fi shenanigans seem made-to-order for two performers and personae who have spent most of their careers confronting improbable if not impossible situations. The film’s ultimate leap into befuddled absurdity is performed by a scene-stealing, chess-playing dog shared by the two characters in two different time zones. By this point, viewers can be forgiven for the impression that the filmmakers are mocking them.
Still, I have always felt that both Ms. Bullock’s patented expressions of anguish and Mr. Reeves’ stoical minimalism have been somewhat underrated. Both Alex and Kate have back-stories of commendable complexity and cultural texture. Alex is afflicted with an Oedipal relationship with his famous father, Simon (Christopher Plummer), who delivers the movie’s best lines from what turns out to be his deathbed. Mr. Plummer, with all his theatrical grandeur, passionately explains the architect’s use of light to accommodate the different skies of Barcelona and Tokyo; the scenic virtuosity of the film as a whole prevents such purple prose from becoming obtrusive.
For her part, Kate is consoled through her ordeal by two perceptively articulate women, her mother (Willeke van Ammelrooy) and a hospital colleague, Dr. Anna Klyczynski (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Kate is also blessed with a remarkably patient boyfriend, Morgan (Dylan Walsh), with whom she enters into a temporary liaison, and this only after Alex has unavoidably stood her up on a date made two years in advance through the old trusty lake house mailbox. Alex is even less distracted from his foreordained romantic fate by a pathetically clinging co-worker (Lynn Collins), who literally throws herself at Alex, succeeding only in making him uncomfortable.
I have recently been scolded by a reader for “giving away” the plot of La Moustache. I plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of my readers. At the very least, I should have warned my readers not to read my review until they had seen the movie themselves. I have resorted to this precaution in the past and shall do so in the future. The truth is that the ending of La Moustache didn’t make any sense to me, and I may have unconsciously become a little hostile to the film and decided to “spoil” it for my readers. I bring up this issue not because I intend to do the same here, but because, in a crazy way, I found that the pieces of The Lake House finally fit together more coherently than those in La Moustache. This is not to say that one picture is better than the other. If pressed, I would say that La Moustache is more sérieux than The Lake House.
But what finally surprised me about the film is that by the conclusion, I felt that the directorial style had transcended the ridiculously shopworn narrative premise that true love can conquer even time and death. Even before then, there was a sequence of disconnected incidents that suddenly clicked for me. On one of his quixotic journeys into the future, Alex moves a sapling from the lake house into the midst of Chicago’s skyscrapers. Much later, as a conversation ends in front of a large tree, the camera soars around the tree so majestically and so expressively that this old Ophülsian knew instantly that this was the same one Alex had transplanted, and that, in some mysterious way, time—seemingly his mortal enemy—would be the agent of his obsession’s fulfillment. In their way, Mr. Reeves and Ms. Bullock are humble artists in the service of eternity, but the few moments they share in the conjoined epiphanies of Alex and Kate lift them above the swirling mass of mortal humanity.