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With: Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ron Eldard
Written by: Shawn Otto, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III
Directed by: Vadim Perelman
MPAA Rating: R for some violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 126
Date: 12/19/2003

House of Sand and Fog (2003)

1 Star (out of 4)

Schlock the 'House'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Starting off with an acclaimed, beloved book sometimes affordsfilmmakers a certain early confidence. With such strong source material,how could they possibly go wrong?

Ironically, it's that confidence that invariably undoes their work. The Shipping News was an example from two years ago. Miramax was absolutely certain that this Pulitzer Prize-winning source material would result in a sure-fire Best Picture contender. But they forgot to remind director Lasse Hallstr´┐Żm to make a good movie.

First-time director Vadim Perelman has also forgotten to make a good movie, though he certainly does not lack in confidence. You can tell from every bold stroke of this film that he thinks he's doing something spectacular.

Yet when the movie ends, we realize we've seen nothing but bold strokes. Underneath all the wild gesticulating is nothing: no suspense, no characters, no emotional truth, nothing.

Jennifer Connelly stars as Kathy Nicolo, a none-too-bright San Francisco housekeeper who lives in the house she inherited from her father. Her failure to open her mail results in the house being put up for auction, and the infuriatingly uptight Iranian immigrant Colonel Behrani (Ben Kingsley) scoops it up.

The rest of the film chronicles the back-and-forth battle between these two, the Colonel aided by his demure wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and Kathy by an equally dim cop (Ron Eldard).

In every conceivable way, Kathy and the cop act precisely the way they're not supposed to act, hanging around the house, making threats. Meanwhile, the Colonel refuses to cooperate; he's a snitch, going to the authorities at every turn, reporting everything that happens through every legal channel.

Watching these characters try to think can cause a headache. As a result, we become disconnected with all of them, and we simply hope and pray for the house to burn down.

Now, this simple setup -- had it not been a prize-winning novel of great importance -- could have made a crackerjack little thriller. Imagine Connelly playing a psychotic Cape Fear-type character who stalks the Colonel's family and does terrible things to the house. She knows the ins and outs of the house better than they do, after all.

But such trifles are beneath Perelman and his grandiosity. And no one buys into it more than Kingsley, who gives such an insufferably pompous performance that Richard Burton must be rolling over in his grave. Kingsley once played such dangerously charming snakes in films likeBugsy and Sexy Beast -- why would he suddenly stiffen up and stick his nose in the air?

Likewise, neither Connelly nor Eldard ever find any kind of human center to their selfish, stupid characters.

The gentle, soulful Aghdashloo -- an Iranian actress who has worked with Abbas Kiarostami and who appeared in last year's Maryam -- has earned praise elsewhere for her warm performance as the Colonel's wife, but she is given very little to do other than to react to his rigid speeches.

House of Sand and Fog is what my colleague Joe Leydon calls a "vegetable" movie -- a film that people think is good for you simply because they've suffered through it. Don't believe the hype.

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