Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Paradox House

Audiences who loved the movie The Lake House are the target readers for the novels I write. Too schmaltzy for the sci-fi fans who delight in mind-bending time travel paradoxes, too out-there for the primarily-female audience that wants to be entertained and doesn't want complexities that give them a headache trying to dissect on the back end. The Lake House is notorious for being one of the worst time travel movies of all time. Audiences walked away from the cinematic experience knowing it didn't work, but weren't sure exactly why. Maybe the suspension of disbelief threshold was too high. Maybe we feared that Keanu Reeves' character, Alex, would bust out a "Duuude, I'm an architect" in mid-dialogue-there were certainly enough flashbacks in his always-wooden performance to remind us all of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

But learning, to me, is every bit as much figuring out what didn't work as opposed to what did. With that in mind, I set out this past weekend to watch it again.

The most obvious was the fact that Sandra Bullock's doctor character, Kate, endures a grueling, hellish day trying to save a man hit by a bus in 2006, and she fails to recognize him as the same man she encountered at a party in 2004. I guess we are to assume he was horribly disfigured in the accident, though the scene indicates none of that. Would his name from the medical chart not be familiar? He introduced himself at the party before they sucked face, gazebo-style. This plot snafu might have gone unnoticed by most movie-goers had the entire plot not hinged on this one WTH climactic moment.

Then, there's the dog. In Kate's time (2006) she writes Alex about the dog she named Jack, despite it being a female. Alex reads the letter in 2004, calls out "Jack" and the dog responds by barking and jumping up as if the dog knows her name. However, Kate hasn't met the dog yet. Thus, the dog wouldn't have responded to the name Jack. Plot-wise, the dog is a device used to show Kate and Alex's connection and the paws-through-the-paint on the deck were used as a pivotal thread to convince them (and the audience) this time-warp is possible. Sadly, if logic doesn't hold strong there, suspension of disbelief fails.

Some had problems with their voice-overs that seemed more a temporal chat room with one-liners than correspondence that could have come from letters. I have felt this writer-pain first-hand. When the external obstacle two characters have to overcome is to actually get together in the same time period, but the romance-genre dictates they are together to grow a believable relationship, writers must take creative liberties. The Lake House incorporated the voice-overs for pacing and to avoid the tedium of watching the main characters visit the mailbox daily, but it's an awkward dissolution of the sentimental hand-written note at the heart of their connection.

Other questions begged to be asked: Didn't Alex rent the lake house to Kate in the first place? Why wouldn't she remember him from two years earlier when they begin corresponding? How can a doctor and an architect, two reasonably intelligent character pursuits, accept the impossible so unflinchingly, not use modern resources to hook up (two years is hardly enough distance to justify all the angst) and figure things out sooner? Why the holy hell wouldn't the mailbox become a portal for stock trade information?

Because the story, first and foremost, is based on romantic notions and impulses. Does it matter that the tree Alex plants for Kate outside her future apartment grows 20 feet in 24 months? Or that they are supposed to be living exactly two years apart and the writer made the mistake of selecting one of those years as a leap year? It shouldn't, but writers who tackle plots on the outer fringes of plausibility must be vigilant with details. It's okay that Keanu Reeves has a hoodie that zips and unzips five times in one scene, but it's not okay for the continuity errors to be the plot's skeleton.

One of the most egregious errors in this movie, for me, was the under-utilized Christopher Plummer as a secondary character. Maybe it stirs my complete adoration for Somewhere in Time and all things about his genius as an actor, but it saddens me the scenes of him and Keanu Reeves as father and son could have been cut out completely and wouldn't have impacted the main plot.

That said, the optimist in me screams that the story's symbolism is inspired, Alar Kivilo's (Frequency) cinematography is visually stunning, Rachel Portman's musical score is perfect and even David Auburn's (Proof) writing has moments of God-I-Wish-I'd-Written-That. Sandra Bullock's performance elevated this movie; and there is, admittedly, always a chemistry between her and Reeves in the rare moments when they occupy the same scene.

What's your take on The Lake House?


Vesper said...

I like this review, L.A. Very insightful. I had, more or less, the same thoughts after watching the movie, but during it I dismissed them and I just allowed my heart to take over my logic... :-)
(I love Keanu Reeves!)

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't seen the movie and from the description I'm not sure I want to. I'm not really the market for romantic stories in general. And I've almost always had issues with time travel.

Marilyn Brant said...

I saw the movie a couple of years ago--loved the premise, caught a few (but far from all) of the plot mistakes you noted and, mostly, just wished the somber tone of the film hadn't made me so tense. The way they set up the movie had me so anxious about the ending that I found it hard to enjoy. I'd always planned to watch it again sometime when I could think about it from a craft and character standpoint and not just a plotline.

Jen FitzGerald said...

Great insight, L.A.--I'm constantly amazed by people who can offer them. I have to watch something over and over (and over and over) before I generally start to pick up on those little things that make me scratch my head.

I've seen the movie in the past year or so, but really didn't pick up on the specifics of what didn't work. It was an okay movie, but not one of those that I would watch again.

L.A. Mitchell said...

@Vesper...taken at surface value, it's easy to get swept away. Keanu is eye candy, I'll give him that, but his acting is the same in every movie, IMHO. may have to check your man card at the door if you watch this one.

@Marilyn...both of the characters *were* melancholy, weren't they? They had inner issues they revealed to each other, but none of them had direct consequences on the plot.

@Jen...good to see you back here ;)

Pamela Cayne said...

The previews were so confusing that it never hit my radar of "To Be Watched", regardless of how much I love Sandra and Keanu. And since it sounds like they used Double Mumbo-Jumbo (probably triple or quadruple...), it will probably stay in that list.

laughingwolf said...

ok, you have two canucks [reeves and plummer], an esto [kivilo] and the fetching bulloch... but i can't see me watching this anytime soon, if ever

i'm too much like charles on that score

love your take on it though, lam :)

Sherry Davis said...

Ooooh, boy. Could we spend hours on making over this movie or what?

The failures are so many, despited the stellar plot devices (disjointed and dysfunctional.

But first and foremost, they failed to evoke the emotion of the veiwer. They failed to give either one of these characters and their relationship a rooting interest the view could identify with.

No one cares when Keanu dies in 2006. We don't know enough about either of them at that point to like them or care. Her life as a doctor is too neat. His as an architect is too wooden(forgive me).

There's no pressing need for either of them (externally) to get together. So, who cares?

And I love Keanu, too! Try A Walk in the Clouds :)

L.A. Mitchell said...

@Pamela...if taken at face value, it's not an entire two hours wasted. As writers, however, it's almost impossible for us *not* to go there and dissect it, right?

@laughingwolf...probably not your thing. There were no guy-card explosions :)'re so right about the "why we should care" factor. For me, most times, that part is elusive. It's hard to inject it in subsequent drafts if it's not present to begin with.

Oohh..I *did* love AWITC. Keanu is a cutie, but he's a little wooden in all of his movies.

Barbara Martin said...

I loved this movie when I watched it at a friend's place. Being a person who has strong intuitive flashes I understood the subtle nuances provided in this movie. There are connecting vibrations between people that are often not noticed. If a viewer took the movie as it unfolded there was something to be learned by its message. We are all connected to living and inanimate objects.