'Lake House': The Red Flag Is Up On This Metaphysical Mailbox

True love must stand the test of time in the warped universe of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.
True love must stand the test of time in the warped universe of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. (Warner Bros Via Reuters)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

"The Lake House" has the sensibility of something conceived by Stephen King after an overdose of chocolate-covered cherries and valentine cards. In other words, it's sugary sweet and based on a premise that's just -- no other word will do -- ridiculous.

It's like "What would happen if trucks turned into monsters?"

And if you say, "Well, you know, trucks probably wouldn't turn into monsters," you're hopelessly lost.

"Lake House's" variation on the absurd premise is as follows: What would happen if a rural mailbox turned into a wormhole in time so someone from 2004 could communicate with someone from 2006?

And it's no defense to say, "That would be unusual behavior for a mailbox." The movie doesn't care, doesn't explain, takes it for granted. It just is, and you can take it or sneak out of the theater and see the end of the "X-Men" sequel in the plex down the hall. Which is kind of a shame, because that goofy fantasy gimmick is by far the least interesting thing about "The Lake House." In fact, you'll probably come to feel that it's a blind alley, and wish the filmmakers had just played the damn thing straight.

As "Lake House" has it, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock -- both of "Speed" fame -- fall in love by letters that pass not through the U.S. Postal Service but the fabric of reality itself. The magical mailbox is located in front of an architecturally impressive yet all but unlivable house on the edge of a Wisconsin lake. The place looks like it's built out of Tinkertoys and Saran Wrap, all struts and wires and panes of glass. The problem is that Reeves's Alex Wyler is in '04 and Bullock's Kate Forster is in '06. Your first thought: Why doesn't she send him stock tips and sports results? But the movie's too self-consciously arty for such crass possibilities. Why send World Series scores across time when you can send your heart?

Indeed, the movie itself doesn't take time travel very seriously, or it doesn't take science fiction very seriously. In fact, there seems to be no proscription against sending time-sensitive info or even objects through the metaphysical mail. There are also no sanctions against using info from now to change what happened then, which would therefore change now (op . cit . "Back to the Future" et al.). The movie just never thinks very hard about it. (And speaking of such things, wouldn't it have made more sense to run the time-space messages through cyberspace via e-mail -- which is by its very nature mysterious and unknowable -- than using a clunky old tin box with its little red flag that goes up or down to signal whether the recipients have envelopes? This would also lead to less lost time watching them watch the mailbox for flag action.)

As I say, the characters are more interesting than the story; each is observed in a believable life; each is trapped in awkward, but real family or domestic arrangements; each is decent, likable, able and empathetic; and each is made for each other. Why not just let it play out in real time?

Reeves's Wyler is the son of a great architect (played by Christopher Plummer as a kind of Frank Lloyd Wright of the 21st century, a tempestuous, charismatic but sloppy genius). Like the sons of many great men, he is somewhat wary of his father's reputation, somewhat frustrated by his father's aloofness and yet, like most sons, still loves the old rogue, when the old rogue will let him.

I liked very much that the movie was serious about architecture and, being shot in and around Chicago and the upper Midwest, had a lot of great architecture to put on the screen. The fancy house, however, turns out to be a confabulation of the movie art designers; it's a prop, not an old Wright or Mies van der Rohe. But it makes you see that Wyler, an architect turned builder, cares about design as much as profit.

The life of Bullock's Forster, too, is well evoked. Her boyfriend is a decent, handsome but uber-controlling lawyer (Dylan Walsh) who will not relent and absolutely has to have his way about everything. He even moves from another city to be near her. Bullock is excellent in the film, intelligent (she's a doctor in a large hospital), low-key, beautiful without being narcissistic, not really in love with her pushy boyfriend but so undecided that she lets him make too many of the decisions.

Of course, the whole point of the time gimmick is to set up a highly arbitrary ending, where she must send him a crucial warning, two years after the fact in her world but exactly on time in his. At the superficial level it works well enough, but any serious thought about the express speed by which the letters through time arrive completely destroys the already fragile construction of the piece.

"The Lake House" isn't nearly as clever or tightly plotted as a similar exercise of a few years ago with a slightly younger pretty boy at the center, Josh Hartnett's "Wicker Park." That one deconstructed itself as it went along to reveal the tissue of might-have-beens and almost-weres that determine any life. "The Lake House" serves neither its audience nor its cast as it examines, with less grace and rigor, the same phenomenon.

The Lake House (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for sexual innuendo and a disturbing image.

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