The Lake House

“The Lake House”, a remake of a South Korean film from 2000, is the hardest kind of film to review: it arouses little emotion and leaves only a faded imprint, so the critic is somewhat at a loss to comment on it, either positively or negatively. I could tell you it’s a fine date movie, but I could whisper in the same breath that it’s flat, a little dull and quite ordinary. Most of the film just exists there on the screen, to be watched, mildly appreciated and then likely forgotten. That it comes alive at some point, in admittedly ardent fashion, is a credit to the two leads, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, who are working together for the first time since they had a high-stress public transit experience in Speed (’94).

The story, a rather original take on time-challenged romance, is about two people living in the same lake house two years apart and exchanging letters about this surprising development. Alex (Reeves) is a Chicago architect and Kate (Bullock) is a doctor, also in Chicago. The timeline is 2006 and Kate is moving to the city, so she asks the new tenant, who turns out to be previous tenant Alex in 2004, to forward her mail to her new apartment. Both intrigued, they reply back and forth, then come to believe that they are indeed communicating through time. This storyline operates through an old-fashioned roadside mailbox, and that’s something I liked about the film. I know the premise makes the mailbox magical, but I like the fact that it uses a more or less quaint version of an everyday object as its time channel, instead of somebody finding a mysterious time portal (Kate & Leopold comes to mind). It’s also interesting that the movie doesn’t involve a journey to the distant past, which was done elegantly in Somewhere in Time (’80), but a relatively small two-year gap, even if I have a strong suspicion it doesn’t play fair with its timeline.

Should Kate and Alex end up together? That would seem to be a given, yet the screenplay only sporadically makes a strong case for it, and what leads to the ending makes you wonder, well ok, if this is happening there, when did all of the other stuff take place? Where does this and that fit in, and what about this other thing? Any way I spun the story in my head, a sizable hole came up in the internal logic. The movie could have pushed aside such rain-on-the-parade rational thinking by sweeping you along with grand romance, but “The Lake House” is disappointingly flat on that level. Bullock is mostly despondent, resigned or piteous (how ridiculously long did she wait at that restaurant anyway?), but that’s how the role is written, while Reeves isn’t your best pick to portray a romantic hopeful. And yet there’s a brief moment where the movie comes alive: at a party in ’04 where he knows who she is but the reverse isn’t yet true, Kate and Alex share a passionate slow dance as a prelude to a torrid kiss. The whole sequence comes more or less out of nowhere, since they’re both accompanied at that party, but it sure had me enraptured. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re with your lover, or simply if you’re the romantically inclined type. The following scene, where they have a talk about that evening, is lively and hints at a more upbeat mood, but the movie falls prey to a formula that locks them into mournful star-crossed lovers. Kate decides it’s not meant to be, and they drift apart until the final twist arrives.

I’m not familiar with the films of Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti, but I just loved Valentin, which he wrote and directed in 2002. Told from the perspective of a precocious eight-year old boy, it’s a delightful tale filled with love, kindness and gentle observations about human nature. One of the problems with “The Lake House” is that unlike Valentin, it doesn’t have a central captivating character interacting with well-drawn supporting players. The dog Kate and Alex share unknowingly through the years is easily the most interesting background character. It’s telling that the cute bit where the dog plays a little chess and the sight of Keanu Reeves wearing a hard hat (not the likeliest of association, you may agree) are among the few memorable moments of the film. We get a glimpse of the difficult relationship Alex has with his father (Christopher Plummer), who indeed seems like quite a difficult man, and we see Kate confiding in her mom or in a co-worker (Willeke van Ammelrooy and Shoreh Aghdashloo), but it never adds real insight into either protagonist.

And as far as the actual lake house goes, it’s more of an architectural oddity than anything else, with little contribution beyond the corresponding mailbox. Sandra Bullock, like Jennifer Garner and Reese Witherspoon, to name only a few, really seems to be among the most approachable, likeable and down-to-earth of actresses. As “The Lake House” unfolds, it becomes detrimental that the movie couldn’t find a bigger place for her charming and easygoing manner. The result feels like a sailboat just floating by until a Hollywood breeze takes it to a conventional destination.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay