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House of Pain 

It's Kingsley versus Connelly in a heart-wrenching battle of wills

Wednesday, Dec 24 2003
For those who pay no mind to Oprah, the dispute at the heart of House of Sand and Fog concerns the occupancy of a run-down little bungalow just inland from the Northern California coast. It's not much of a place, really, and to get a glimpse of the Pacific you'd have to climb up to the roof and stand on tiptoes. But for the two combatants in what escalates into a tragic battle of wills, the house comes to mean everything: a sense of anchor, the pride of self-worth, the very notion of home and stability. Those guys in the yellow blazers down at Century 21 will love it. This is the kind of emotional merchandise they're selling, after all -- not mere boards and bricks.

After being endorsed in 1999 by Oprah Winfrey, who can make (or break) a literary reputation with a few of her not-so-well-chosen words, the Andre Dubus III novel that spawned this film became a fixture on the best-seller lists, a National Book Award finalist, and, if we can believe half the hype, the greatest masterpiece of American Lit since Herman Melville went whale hunting. Relentlessly pre-sold (get your tape-cassette version of the book now!), the movie should also do just fine, thank you.

Good for it, but let's not go overboard. Directed by an unknown Russian immigrant, Vadim Perelman, who has been shooting commercials for Nike, Microsoft, and General Motors, and inhabited by a pair of awfully good movie actors -- Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley -- this House is built a bit more modestly than Winfrey's all-or-nothing bombast might have prepared us for. That's a good thing. A little restraint was in order. Perelman provides a moment of meaningful silence here and there. He gives us Kingsley decked out in a full-dress military uniform, staring dolefully at himself in the bedroom mirror. He encourages us to stop and think.

Meet the antagonists: In the blue corner, Kathy Nicolo (Connelly), a down-at-the-heels recovering alcoholic who's become unhinged since her husband walked out and who has let the little house her father left her at 34 Bisgrove St. practically fall down around her. But the place is home, has always been home, so when sheriff's deputies show up to evict her for unpaid taxes, she's bewildered and angry. In the first place, she doesn't owe any taxes: That's a bureaucratic error.

In the red corner, Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley), an aristocratic former army colonel who fled his native Iran when the ayatollahs came to power. Even though he's now shoveling asphalt on a construction site, he remains elegant and willful, and he means to restore the well-being of himself, his wife (Iranian star Shohreh Aghdashloo), and his teenage son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). The first meaningful step is to buy 34 Bisgrove St. for a song at public auction and turn it into a New World version of the vacation bungalow the family once owned on the Caspian Sea.

Native entitlement is destined to collide with immigrant yearning, and in that clash we get a startlingly ambiguous look at the American dream. We also get top performances from two wonderful actors. For Connelly, this part is something like a natural synthesis of the doomed junkie she played in Requiem for a Dream and the loyal wife of A Beautiful Mind: Vulnerable but feisty, Kathy claws after what she knows is hers, what she needs to survive emotionally, and her battle moves us. But we also feel for Kingsley's dignified but disenfranchised immigrant. No less than Cary Grant, Mr. Behrani wants to build his dream house, too, to reconstruct a life worth living. "Today God has kissed our eyes," he tells his family on the day he buys the bungalow.

The wild card in this unhappy affair is an unstable cop with serious marital problems, one Lester Burdon (Black Hawk Down's Ron Eldard). At first, Lester means only to help Kathy, but as his obsession with her grows, his sleazy side emerges and he sets a crisis into motion. A careful and observant first-time director, Perelman gradually reveals the details of cultural misunderstanding, self-destructive rage, and wrongheaded desire that turn a legal wrangle over a modest house on a quiet street into a tragedy. Dubus' book, considered in some quarters a literary gem, has its verbal warts. Kingsley, Connelly, and a promising new writer/director bring it to vivid, aching life on the screen, a drama of dreams dashed, opportunities squandered, and hopes transformed into horror. This is not pleasant stuff, but it's important, and thoroughly heart-wrenching.

About The Author

Bill Gallo


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