House of Sand and Fog (review)

Empty House

(Worst of 2003)

Can I borrow a phrase — actually, a book title — from Ebert and say I hated, hated, hated this movie? Oh my god, she said, banging her head against the table in frustration and exasperation, is there anything that makes you want to scream more than a film that’s this full of its own gravity and import? All the long, quiet, contemplative shots of The House shrouded in Fog… all the long, quiet, contemplative shots of Jennifer Connelly, beautifully disintegrating… all the long, quiet, contemplative shots of Ben Kingsley, morose and determined… It’s been ages since I so longed to throw something at the screen.

Maybe the book upon which the film is based, by Andre Dubus III, is fine — Oprah liked it, after all. Maybe the horrendously overwrought melodrama is unique to the film, this feeling that first-time director Vadim Perelman (who also wrote the screenplay, with Shawn Otto) took the barest of slim tales and inflated it into something he believes is Meaningful and Serious, that he so longs for you to see as weighty with significance.

The facts of the story certainly seem as if they’d lend themselves to something intriguing. Through a clerical error, Connelly’s (Hulk, A Beautiful Mind) Kathy Nicolo loses her house to the county. It’s only a small, rundown bungalow in Northern California, but her father left it to her, and it’s pretty much all she has in the world. But while she’s trying to get the mistake fixed and get her house back, the county auctions it off to Kingsley’s (Tuck Everlasting, Triumph of Love) Massoud Amir Behrani, an Iranian immigrant who lived extremely well in the old country and has dreams of doing so again in America with his family. Though the house was unfairly taken from Kathy, Massoud bought it fairly, and it represents more than a mere domicile to both of them.

There could be all sorts of interesting stuff in this about the contradictions and paradoxes of “the American dream,” but it gets lost in the presentation, so self-consciously artsy. If only Perelman had just let the tale play itself out without feeling the need to go over it with a highlighter, marking all the Important bits for us so we wouldn’t miss them… as if we would have. Instead of trusting us to understand the metaphors behind the literalness, Perelman makes the metaphors so literal that we can’t believe them. And so all the detail — which we’re meant to see as ironic, all the little things that add up to terrific tragedy — are so overblown that they become absurd.

Much of that absurd detail is embodied in Connelly’s Kathy. So depressed — or something — that she couldn’t be bothered to open the mail for eight months, which is how she missed the 18,000 notices from the county that she was about to be evicted and her house seized, she takes to harassing the Behrani family. It takes her a while to muster up enough artful working-class, showily manic-depressive energy to do so, of course, because she’s busy keeping her hair particularly mussed and shaving her armpits in public restrooms — see, she’s real — and then the harassment becomes a full-time job, what with all the heavy drinking and suicide attempts to be performed in the Behranis’ yard and bathroom and such. Fortunately, she earns the assistance of Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard: Ghost Ship, Mystery, Alaska), the world’s dumbest cop, who — ironically — was one of the cops who evicted her but couldn’t help but fall in love with the rescue fantasy that Kathy is.

Perhaps the best literal metaphor here is forced upon poor Kim Dickens (The Gift, Hollow Man) as Lester’s wife, whom he left to live rough with homeless Kathy: she is reduced initiating a screaming match with Lester that occurs not only at his job in front of all the guys but also in front of their kids, who’re bawling their tender little faces off for Mommy and Daddy to stop fighting. It’s the most embarrassing scene in an embarrassing movie, and that’s where I wanted to start throwing things.

And of course, that’s all before the finale, which is ridiculous in the extreme. A house of sand and fog this is, indeed, naught but minuscule grains of substance and wisps of consequence but ponderously, oppressively full of itself.

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