A House on a Hill
dir. Workman
Opens Fri, Aug 13
Hollywood Theater

As far as cinema-friendly careers go, architecture--with its driven visionaries and camera-ready backdrops--would seem rife with possibility. Past attempts have failed to do much with that inherent promise, however. (See 2001's Life As A House for a less-than-impressive example... or don't.)

A House on a Hill tries (man, does it ever try) to live up to that promise and present a definitive statement on the correlations between creative drive and self-destructive hubris. Sadly, however, it loses itself amongst the small details and flashy knickknacks; in trying to impress the viewer with little touches, it neglects its all-important foundations.

Philip Baker Hall plays Harry Mayfield, a disillusioned master builder enlisted by a pair of flighty yuppies to construct a house on the site of what was once his own tragically aborted dream home. Mayfield's initial reluctance eventually gives way to his refusal to compromise, and as Mayfield's participation begins to jeopardize the project, an obnoxious filmmaker, Gaby (Laura San Giacomo), is enlisted to document the event. In the process, Gaby delves into Mayfield's shadowy back-story, and quickly souring (and generally unsurprising) results ensue. Along the way, occasional subplots or further complications are hinted at, quickly addressed, and then allowed to genially slouch out of frame.

Perhaps sensing the relative inertness of his plot, writer/director Chuck Workman (best known for his yearly time-compressing Oscar montages) goes plumb loco with the post-production effects. Workman blitzes the screen with a nonstop barrage of shifting aspect ratios, split screens, and various other visual fireworks. While such razzle-dazzle occasionally creates an interesting contrast between the old and new creative schools, the overwhelming impression is that of an odd reluctance to delve much beneath the surface trappings.

House has some positive aspects--chief among them Hall's flinty marvel of a performance--but the overall results are far too inconsistent. All too often in A House on a Hill's construction, the filmmakers seem content to slap a coat of Day-Glo paint over their rickety shack and call it good.