Architect, The (2006)Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 01/10/07 16:49:35
(Worth A Look)
Could “The Architect” have been better? That’s the question that’s been weighing on me as I write this review, mostly because I don’t hesitate to answer yes. Because it’s based on a stageplay, the story is designed for a minimal production and it was never properly reimagined for film. There’s a lot of focus on the people, while the settings (which can now be real instead of a set) are completely neglected. I guess it’s a good thing then that the story is just so damn good.“Can’t you see?” says activist Tonya Neeley (the underappreciated Viola Davis) to middle class architect/professor Leo Waters (Anthony LaPaglia). “This isn’t about you. This is about so much more than you.” But that’s just it; Leo can’t see past himself. As the centerpiece of Matt Tauber’s “The Architect,” Leo exists in his narcissistic world. He talks constantly so he doesn’t have to face his family’s deafening dysfunction. He barely looks at wife Julia (Isabella Rossellini), who’s become obsessively preoccupied with her garden to avoid dealing with her growing alienation and loneliness. He drags 15-year-old daughter Christina (“Heroes” cheerleader Hayden Panettiere) to his college-level classes, but she preoccupied with her post-puberty discomfort. He attempts to exercise the same influence over son Martin (Sebastian Shaw), but the college-dropout isn’t the least bit interested in following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Martin spends most of his time hanging around Tonya’s home, a series of crumbling apartments originally designed by Leo that have since become overrun by gangs.
The film’s biggest problem, though, is that while Tonya wants the story to be about class wars in the Chicago projects, her story could serve simply as a metaphor for Leo’s life. Before Martin sneaks away to wander through the buildings, none of the Waters family had ever seen the finished structure, not even Leo. He has a theoretical idea of what the structures should be and is largely unwilling to face the reality of them failing, just like his family. He’s got the perfect life plan mapped out in his head (which is why he drags his bored kids to his boring lectures) and is unwilling to see his family as individual people. When Tonya visits the Waters home to view Leo’s plan for renovating the structures, she is mystified by his lack of understanding. His plans to renovate the exteriors and add in more community space does nothing to squelch the gang problem, and when she tells him this, Julia is quick to join her side, which leads to this exchange between Leo and Julia:
“You’re supposed to support me.”
“I thought she was right.”
“That’s not the fucking point!”
The idealized Julia is little more than a happy support system for Leo, but the dissatisfied Julia can actually see Leo’s faults. But since Leo is either unwilling or simply unable to see the complex individual standing before him, his life is clearly headed for a big stumble.
But then again, maybe the film isn’t simply about Leo. Tonya’s world, with its more overt themes, is actually the more compelling one. Because she’s the only one fighting to clean up the projects, Tonya is forced to live there, knowing that her arguments are stronger coming from an actual resident. She lives with her stereotype daughter (a trash TV-watching teen mother who ignores her crying child), but has sent her gifted daughter (Serena Reeder) to live in the suburbs with a wealthy doctor and his family. Cammie occasionally returns on the weekends, but her new life in a better zip code has turned her nose up at her former digs. Also living in the buildings is Shawn (Paul James), a subdued kid who spends his life reading classic literature, listening to John Denver and attempting to romance a sexually-confused Martin. Whereas the Waters family is often overwhelmed by Leo’s unrealistic expectations (except when the kids wander outside the community to find their own sexual explorations), the residents of the projects are allowed to be dynamic characters. When Martin questions Shawn’s choice of music, Shawn simply questions the stereotype. After all, who said young black men have to listen to rap instead of country?
Based on a play by David Grieg, “The Architect” retains much of its theatrical origin, appearing more as a symbolic character study than a fleshed out film. Tauber spends much of his time shooting his characters is close-ups and medium shots, often neglecting the setting of the story. We no longer have to imagine the projects, as they can be visually presented to us, but Tauber rarely takes that extra step. When he does, however — such as showing Leo stacking rocks in Julia’s garden outside of the glass windows of their house — the subdued results are perfectly executed. Instead, Tauber relies heavily on his actors, hoping their performances can pull of the metaphorical dialogue. Luckily for Tauber, they mostly succeed. LaPaglia, Panettiere and James all turn in noteworthy performances (Rossellini is wasted on one-note sadsack Julia), but its Davis that deserves most of the credit. Having spent too much of her career playing roles like the maid in “Far From Heaven” and 50 Cent’s grandma in “Get Rich or Die Tryin’, ” it’s nice to finally see Davis appear in a three-dimensional role. Unlike Leo, Tonya is facing the reality of her family situation. One daughter is a wreck, one daughter is embarrassed by her and she’s still got issues over her lost son, but instead of retreating into an idealized fantasy, Tonya is trying to make her family work, all while working too hard to protect her neighbors’ families too. Perhaps Grieg and Tauber made a mistake by not making her the protagonist of “The Architect.” If they had, this small little movie might have made more of an impact. But even so, within the film’s layered complexity lies a great study of troubled characters destined to remain misunderstood.With the exception of Masi Oka, Hayden Panettiere as indestructible cheerleader Claire is easily the breakout star of TV’s “Heroes.” I assume “The Architect” was made prior to her being crowned an It Girl, because except for her scenes opposite truck driver Joe (Walton Goggins), she hardly makes a dent and she’s far too talented to be so wasted.
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