Title: The Lake House
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Director: Alejandro Agresti
Screenwriters: David Auburn
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Christopher Plummer
I’m an easy target for films like The Lake House, because I instinctively want to protect them. This is an earnest, straightforward time-traveling love story, entirely devoid of irony, content to wear its heart on its sleeve. Its naîve romanticism invites derision; the casting of Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in the lead roles is practically begging for gales of laughter. Since I like big, dramatic gestures and emotion unrestrained by winks and nods, my first reaction is to defend the movie from the sneering bullies who no doubt stand ready to pelt it with garbage.
This time, though, my desire to take up arms is tempered by the fact that The Lake House doesn’t quite work. One reason is that the screenplay is partially defeated by time travel films’ oldest nemesis: the paradox. Another is that — I’m sorry — I never managed to get beyond Keanu Reeves in the lead role of a possibly brilliant architect. A third is that the resolution, which attempts elegance and grace, is too abrupt and ill-considered to work either logically or emotionally.
Making fun of Keanu Reeves is so 1997, and everything has mostly been said. I thought that my two-thirds beloved Matrix trilogy had helped me get past his weird brand of pothead inexpressiveness, but I guess I was wrong, at least when it comes to his occupying educated romantic lead roles. The Lake House contains a few scenes where Reeves’ Alex Wyler has to talk architecture, and I couldn’t help it: I tittered. I am embarrassed, since my personal motto with this sort of thing is “accept it and move on,” but here we are.
Even so, that is emphatically not a deal-breaker. Reeves’ presence can hardly remain on my mind when I am watching a story about a man and a woman who live two years apart (the man in 2004 and the woman in 2006) but fall in love via a time-traveling mailbox. For a while, director Alejandro Agresti makes it work: Bullock and Reeves essentially narrate the film in the letters they exchange, sometimes improbably interrupting each other and arguing with the immediacy of conversation. The screenplay starkly delineates the characters: Bullock’s Kate Forster Pushes Everyone Away, while Wyler has major daddy issues. The film makes their longing seem real, and the connection they make via time-travel-post is affecting.
However, The Lake House has a very obvious “secret” that comes back to haunt it. Early in the film, Kate — who, by the way, is a hospital doctor — witnesses a terrible car accident and tries in vain to help the victim, whose face we don’t see. Once the film’s central conceit becomes clear, this is almost puzzling: I mean, who else can it be? When, later, the screenplay leans on mystery with regard to, for example, why a scheduled phone call or meeting doesn’t occur, the answer seemed so clear that I was almost confused: am I being tricked?
The ending relates back to this not-so-mysterious early development in a way I couldn’t quite untangle, though I leave open the possibility that my general ineptitude with time paradoxes prevented me from grokking it fully. I do know that it’s too quick and pat to make sense on an emotional level: specifically, I am not sure it quite resolves Kate’s character arc, which seemed to be headed in a different direction. Any sweetness it may have boasted is undermined by the immense amount of head-scratching it inspires.
But the fact that the denoument ultimately raises more questions than it answers is less important than the fact that it doesn’t work in the moment. It comes out of nowhere and fades to black before we can make heads or tails of just what happened. For a film that had been so earnest and outgoing, this isn’t a good strategy. I still have the vague urge to defend The Lake House from the inevitable horde of barbarians that its m.o. will attract, but I won’t put myself out.