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Review: The Architect

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 15, 2006 3:33PM

Sometimes the best of intentions, coupled with great acting and location shooting, just aren't enough to save a film from its own convoluted heavy-handedness. Such is the case with The Architect, which opens today at the Landmark a few weeks before it comes out on DVD (it was shot on high-def video). It's an adaptation of a play by David Greig: a smug architect finds himself confronted by a resident activist of a public housing project he designed, who believes it's a danger to the community and wants it torn it down. At the same time there are numerous crises on the home front as long-simmering tensions finally explode.

2006_12rarchitect.jpgThe play's original Scottish setting has been changed to Chicago: the architect (played by Anthony LaPaglia) is a professor at Northwestern and the public housing project is the fictional Eden Gardens. The set-up is a meaty one, and Frederick Wiseman's sadly-underseen documentary Public Housing remains the definitive examination of the subject. Instead, this film muddies the central plotline with so many melodramatic tangents that even Eugene O'Neill would blush: incest, frigidity, internalized homophobia, a Lolita-esque daughter and class warfare (to name a few). In that sense it resembles another recent film, Imaginary Heroes. Overfed and undernourished.

It's a shame, because director Matt Tauber has captured solid performances from top to bottom. Isabella Rossellini particularly scores in a disappointingly small role as the wife. Though she has only a few scenes, her portrait of a woman who suddenly realizes that her obsessively meticulous ways can no longer fill the emptiness of her marriage is both tender and frightening. Viola Davis, as the public housing resident and activist, is also able to overcome the overheated scenario and creates a moving characterization.

There's lots of fine Chicago location shooting that's atmospheric without being show-offy, including glimpses of Evanston, the Damen L stop and even the Expressway. It's seamlessly meshed with scenes shot in New York. John Bailey's digital cinematography is crisp and restrained. Interestingly he also shot Ordinary People, a similar (and superior) dysfunctional family drama which is also set in the Chicago area. Unlike that film however The Architect shuffles from problem to problem, scene to scene without any lasting adhesion. It's worth a look but, in the end, unsatisfying.