REVIEW: There's a Great Movie in Dream House, Dying to Get Out
In olden times -- as far back as 1993, even -- I'd sometimes see screenwriters quoted in defense of their craft, asserting that the script is always the backbone of a good movie. I don't see screenwriters saying that so much anymore, perhaps because they're so used to seeing their efforts mucked with that they don't even expect whatever good work they've done to shine through. Still, it's painful to watch a movie like Dream House -- well-acted, beautifully shot and directed with extraordinary care and attention to craft -- only to realize that the story, the alleged backbone, is absurd.
I don't even blame the screenwriter, David Loucka (whose previous credits include the 1989 The Dream Team), for Dream House's big problems. Somewhere along the way, this project took -- or was forced to take -- a wrong turn and couldn't find its way back. Today, there are so many movies churning through theaters week after week. Some are good, some are lousy, and many are just middling -- it's easy to forget last week's pictures when the new ones sweep in the following Friday. But there's something very fishy about how almost-great Dream House is. This movie is a house with its own back story, and it's not telling.
And still, director Jim Sheridan and his actors make you believe in it. In Dream House, Daniel Craig plays Will, a high-level big-city editor who leaves his job to spend more time with his family and renovate the small-town fixer-upper he's recently bought. When he arrives home on the first evening of his newfound freedom, wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) greets him at the door, while his two supercute (yet not too adorable) young daughters wait inside. (They're played by real-life sisters Taylor and Claire Geare.) It's just past dark, it's snowing, and when Libby spots her husband coming up the walk, the two fall into each other's arms. John Debney's score is hip to the illusion of this dream moment, and Caleb Deschanel's camera work is, too: At this point, the movie is both lush and bristling with portent, like a Douglas Sirk drama.
Actually, it may help to think of Dream House as a Sirk movie of sorts, with maybe a little Emily Brontë mixed in -- it doesn't exactly work as a thriller, and not because Sheridan and his actors don't try. You see, it turns out that Will's dream house is actually the site of a grisly multiple murder, in which a young mother and her two children were shot and killed. During renovations, Libby uncovers traces of the little girls' lives -- the doorway where their parents lovingly marked their height in pencil, for instance. And the two little girls find a secret hiding place where the previous tenants' toys have been carefully stowed away. But there's something menacing about the house, and you know it because a neighbor, played by Naomi Watts, goes all shivery when Will stops by to introduce himself to her. There are things about the house that don't sit right with Libby, either. She confides her anxiety to Will, who tries to soothe her. "There's joy in this house, real joy in this house," he tells her. "You're in it, so..."
If only it were that simple. But the way Craig delivers those lines (as if they'd just occurred to him, a rare gift from the gods of domesticity, who so often fail to put just the right words in a spouse's mouth) and the way Weisz responds to them (not with words but with a shrug that nonetheless knows when to accept a compliment) turn these characters into people you feel you have some investment in.
That's partly because Weisz and Craig are good actors and partly because Sheridan has clearly set the tone for what they're doing: Much of Dream House consists of simple little vignettes of family life, many of which have the same ring of authenticity Sheridan brought to his marvelous semiautobiographical film In America. These scenes, and much of Dream House -- when it's not busy wrapping up its preposterous plot -- show that personal touch, a kind of warmth that you don't have to give a movie when you're just a director for hire.
If you've seen the trailer for Dream House, you pretty much already know the whole plot. (Thanks for that, Universal.) The studio also didn't screen the movie for critics, which is its right. But I urge anyone who has seen and enjoyed any of Sheridan's films -- from My Left Foot to In the Name of the Father to Brothers to the underappreciated Get Rich or Die Tryin' -- to give Dream House a chance. This is an example of a filmmaker who's motivated by his own high standards, and even if Dream House doesn't hang together on the whole, it works amazingly well scene-by-scene. It's hard to say who or what exactly failed Sheridan and his team, keeping Dream House from being everything it could have been. But this is still a picture made by someone who knows how to make movies, and that shows, like an insistent ghost, through the far-from-perfect finished product.