Like the lovable baseball catcher in Bang the Drum Slowly, like John Wayne's poignant gunfighter in The Shootist, like hundreds of doomed movie protagonists before him, the hero of Life as a House doesn't have long to live. By the second reel, you may find yourself wishing his time on the planet were even shorter.
The fellow's name is George Monroe, he's portrayed (to the sanctimonious hilt) by Kevin Kline, and he embodies every cliché about dread diseases, personal regrets, and last-ditch redemption four generations of committed Hollywood sentimentalists have managed to concoct. To begin with, George's biography is a catalog of failures: His marriage broke up 10 years ago. He lives like a scruffy bohemian in a rickety shack that has a nice view of the Pacific, but is in sore need of paint and plumbing. His estranged teenage son, Sam (Hayden Christensen), is heavily pierced and hopelessly alienated. George's middle-class neighbors don't like the weirdo in their midst any better than he likes himself. When he loses his job as a builder of architectural models, we can practically hear the bonk! as he hits bottom. We can also feel the moviemakers starting to yank our chains. Because, along with his other problems, our hero has terminal cancer.
It will come as a surprise to no one that George Monroe's fond, final wish before joining Camille and Brian Piccolo in movie heaven is to lift himself out of the depths -- and reclaim his son's lost love. To that end, he takes to bashing his filthy hovel with a sledgehammer. In its place, we learn, he means to build the house he's always meant to build but never got around to starting. Oh, yes, he wants his son to help.
That siren you hear means every last one of us poor popcorn-munchers is now on heightened symbolism alert. The crisis is unlikely to pass until George does.
Need we add that, unlike his life up to now, George Monroe's heartwarming construction project turns out to be an amazingly trouble-free experience? The formerly angry and contentious members of his family eventually pitch in, along with almost everyone else within the sound of his holy nail-pounding. Magically turned into craftsmen, they help turn one man's long-deferred dream into -- yep -- reality. All this without noble George breathing a single word to anyone about his impending death.
Director Irwin Winkler -- better known as the producer of such terrific films as the original Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Right Stuff -- has no qualms about spooning out the sap, and Kline's cloying, mawkish performance -- all quiet self-sacrifice and synthetic nobility, mixed with the odd wisecrack -- is likely to make all but the most devoted three-hanky crowd squirm in their seats. If you must see a movie soon in which a dying man redeems himself while redeeming a sullen teenager with purple hair, Christine Lahti's My First Mister is a better bet. As for House, it's one piece of real estate better left on the open market.