Dream House: You Wouldn’t Want to Live There

Director Jim Sheridan is just going through the motions in this misfiring psychodrama

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Three big mysteries about the new thriller Dream House:

Who killed the family that lived in the house that Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and their two daughters have just moved into?

Why was a movie starring 007 Craig, the Academy Award-winning Weisz and King Kong dream girl Naomi Watts — and directed by Jim Sheridan, who’s received six Oscar nominations — not screened for critics in advance?

Why on earth does the trailer reveal Dream House‘s major plot twist, which doesn’t occur until halfway through the film?

A bit of inventive sleuthing (i.e., a half-minute of Internet surfing) unearths two facts about Dream House: that Craig and Weisz fell in love while making the film in early 2010 (they were married this summer); and that Sheridan and the producers fought over the cut of the movie, with the director absent during the final stages of editing. These things happen all the time in picture-making: stars align romantically, while the money people wrangle with the creatives over content. But Dream House must have stoked rancorous fires, since neither Craig nor Weisz nor Sheridan did pre-release publicity for the film. And, seemingly signaling critics that the end product hadn’t been worth all the hubbub, the movie was dumped into theaters without critics’ screenings. (We caught up with it at the first midnight shows.) It’s as if Dream House had been the subject of a brutal custody battle, with the child left an orphan.

Children in peril are a touchstone of this nice-try but misfiring psychodrama. (So are custody fights.) “Once upon a time there were two little girls who lived in a house,” begins a bedtime story that Will Atenton (Craig) tells his adorable daughters Trish, 7, and Dee Dee, 5 (Taylor and Claire Geare). The two might be the girls in Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical film In America, about an Irish couple who move into a dingy Manhattan apartment with their daughters, about the ages of Will’s kids. But In America was a hymn to family solidarity in mean circumstances. This one is about some doomed little girls, descendants of The Shining twins, who occupy the haunted house that is Dream House.

Having quit his publishing job to write that big novel, Will has moved with wife Libby (Weisz) and the girls into a comfy suburban home. Their only notable neighbors are Ann Patterson (Watts) and her teen daughter Chloe (Desperate Housewives‘ Rachel Fox), both of whom are severely estranged from husband Jack (Marton Csokas), and all of whom I wouldn’t have shoehorned into in this paragraph if they figure importantly in the part of the story I’m not going to tell. But you should know that fighting over kids is a recurring motif in the scripts of David Loucka, who wrote Dream House. In his script for the 2002 Borderline, he dreamed up a murder mystery involving a custody fight.

Shortly after settling in, the Atentons are beset by suspense-movie shivers: the rattling of an awning against the window, bootprints in the snow, a man’s furtive silhouette behind a tree, a car that nearly runs over Will in his own driveway. Will also learns that the house had been a murder site: the mother and two daughters of the Ward family had been shot to death; the father, Peter, was thought to have committed the crime but declared emotionally incompetent to stand trial. Assuming that the harasser is Peter Ward, and frustrated by the edgy indifference of the local police, Will visits the asylum where Ward had been confined and finds he was released. The murder suspect is on the loose, and closer to Libby and the girls than even Will fears.

So far, any viewers who’ve logged their share of haunted-house and haunted-family movies is sufficiently sedated to ask few questions (Why do the genteel-class Craig and Weisz both sport arm tattoos?) and big ones (Why doesn’t Will move his family out of this crazy place?). This is where screenwriter David Loucka detonates the big reversal, which caught me off-guard if not those members of the audience who’d seen either the full trailer or the 15-second version shown on TV this week. (Baaaad Universal marketers!) The movie then spends its second half trying to explain and resolve the mystery. ITSY-BITSY SPOILER ALERT: I’ll say only that it involves not just mistaken identity of the killer but mistaken identity of a residence. Could it be that the wrong house was haunted? END TEENY-WEENY SPOILER ALERT.

Beyond its killjoy promos, Dream House fails in creating a cozy world for the hauntings to distort and destroy. Set in suburban New York, shot in Ontario (by master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) and starring three English-born actors, the movie misses a sense of location, a domestic specificity; the loving-family part of the picture feels a perfunctory setup for the doomed-family part. Lacking too is the emotional import Sheridan lent to his three films starring Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer). The stars are fully in synch with their characters — Weisz’s sad radiance and Watts’ glamorous show of concern are worth watching — but the director is going through the motions, and he doesn’t display the cinematic skill, at least in the release version, to bring off an exercise in either Hitchcockian or Shyamalanian suspense.

The lesson here is that any film, including those made with the most honorable of intensions, has many roads to failure, few to success. It’s not really a mystery that movies fall short; it’s a miracle that any turn out to be dream houses the audience wants, for a couple of hours, to live in.

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