Photo by Bruce Birmelin
As American dreams go, the property that causes all the trouble in The House of Sand and Fog isn’t much to write home about. A small, three-bedroom bungalow on the coastal plain near San Francisco, the house is seen mostly through the swirling mists of myopia — which may be a little more metaphor than is necessary in an already florid tale of two dispossessed people fighting for sovereignty over this modest home as if their lives depended on it. Indeed they do, though in very different ways. Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a young Italian-American recovering alcoholic, inherited the house from her father, and she’s moved here from Massachusetts in the hope of starting over clean and sober. When her husband abruptly leaves her, and a bureaucratic error, compounded by her own flakiness, results in her eviction, the house is sold out from under her for a song to an Iranian immigrant, Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley). Once a proud officer in the shah’s army, Colonel Behrani now toils with a road-cleaning crew, while his wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), keeps up lavish appearances they can’t afford for the sake of their newly married daughter, Soraya (Navi Rawat), and teenage son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahgdout). Behrani sees the house on Bisgrove Street as an investment opportunity and, as soon as he has moved his family in, begins making improvements, planning to sell as soon as possible for several times what he paid for the house and begin to reclaim his lost wealth and social standing. Devastated and furious, Kathy fights back with the help of Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), the married police officer sent to evict her, and with whom she soon enters into a passionate affair.
The House of Sand and Fog is adapted from Andre Dubus III’s fine 1999 novel, which was short-listed for a National Book Award and, armed with an Oprah nod, became a national best-seller. Like his father, Andre Dubus, whose short story “Killings” became the basis for the movie In the Bedroom, Dubus III has an exquisite ear for the interior voices that enlarge mere plot into an examination of how essentially decent people come to betray their best selves. Though the novel hardly wants for dramatic events, it’s a haunting, character-driven tale whose power comes from the increasingly desperate noise inside Kathy’s and the colonel’s heads. Dubus lets no one off the hook — at once dispassionate and compassionate, he catalogs the rationalizations and denials, the fleeting remorse and the escalating rage as these two casualties of an elusive American dream battle, oblivious to the consequences, to repair the gaping holes in their lives.
Bringing inner lives to the screen is tricky enough for the most seasoned filmmaker, and director Vadim Perelman is just starting out. The screenplay for The House of Sand and Fog, which was adapted by Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto, is faithful enough to the novel’s external dialogue, but absent its seething inwardness, it feels trite and detached from real speech. A director of commercials, Perelman overcompensates with upper- ‰ case atmosphere: scads of symbolic heavy weather, ravishingly shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a grandiloquent score by James Horner thatlets hardly a frame go by without dropping hints of disaster. Indeed, everything about the movie seems excessive to the material. What should have been a small, independent feature without marquee casting — the story’s protagonists, after all, are meant to be the kind of people nobody ever notices — has been blown up into DreamWorks’ prize heifer in the race against Mystic River and 21 Grams for the doom-’n’-gloom Oscar. Connelly is wistful and intelligent, but her delicate, aristocratic beauty doesn’t readily lend itself to a blowsy, offbeat role that has Patricia Clarkson written all over it. And Kingsley, with his ramrod back and piercing gaze — he looks like a snooty pelican — gives the kind of performance that got him a knighthood, Department of Frosty Stares. All pomp and circumstance, and notwithstanding a significant failure of nerve involving one of the characters toward the end, The House of Sand and Fog is so burdened with trauma in its last 15 minutes, it completely loses sight of Dubus III’s larger insight into what happens when we stake our American dreams on ownership rather than on community.
THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG | Directed by VADIM PERELMAN | Written by PERELMAN and SHAWN LAWRENCE OTTO, adapted from the novel by ANDRE DUBUS III | Produced by MICHAEL LONDON and PERELMAN | Released by DreamWorks Pictures | At AMC Century 14