"The Lake House"

Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock reunite, but this genre-defying film steers them in all different directions and speeds toward utter confusion.

Published June 16, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

"The Lake House" is a failed experiment, or a failed something, a moody summer romance that isn't sure if it wants to be a classy little art film or a doomed-love crowd-pleaser à la "Ghost." In the end, I'm not sure even the director, Alejandro Agresti ("Valentin"), quite knows what he's made, or what the ending means. This movie is confusing as hell -- I couldn't spoil the plot if I wanted to, since I have no idea how it all ties together.

But "The Lake House" is an example of the way bad movies can sometimes be more interesting than merely mediocre, workmanlike ones, and of the way they sometimes compel us even against our better judgment. Sandra Bullock plays Kate, a doctor who reluctantly leaves the airy, glass-walled lakeside house she's been renting in suburban Illinois. She's taken a job at a big Chicago hospital (ostensibly to shake up her life), and she'll be moving into a generic urban apartment. Just before she leaves this idyllic homestead, with her shaggy gold dog in tow, she opens the mailbox and leaves a note for the house's new tenant, requesting that any stray mail be forwarded, and adding, by the way, that the paw prints by the front door were there when she moved in, and that old box in the attic was, too.

Cut to Keanu Reeves' Alex, an architect, driving up to the house in his old pickup truck. He reads the letter and looks for the paw prints, which are nowhere to be seen. Ditto the box in the attic. Several days later, after an event that deeply troubles her, Kate returns to the lake house and peeks into the mailbox: Alex has left a letter for her there, which she reads and can't help responding to. The two continue to correspond in this fashion, which might seem normal enough, except that Alex is living in 2004, while Kate is booking along in 2006: Apparently, they're exchanging letters across some wrinkle in time. After a while, they dispense with the writing and just begin talking to one another, even though they're never in a room together. And naturally, as two lonely single people ought to, they fall in love.

The details get more confusing rather than less. Alex and Kate have the same dog (she answers to the name "Jack") and, apparently, they have met before, but fate, as it so often does, has conspired to keep them apart -- for a time, at least. The script here is by David Auburn, who wrote the much-lauded play "Proof," and you can see how he has a grand old time monkeying around with the story's twisty, turny logic, which is far less interesting than what's going on with the characters emotionally. "The Lake House" isn't very effective as a puzzle movie, although it does make far more sense than something like Michael Haneke's art-house snoozer "Caché," whose gimmick is that it's a mystery with no answer. (And if you were hoping for one, Haneke seems to be saying, then the joke's on you, and shame on you for having such bourgeois moviegoing expectations.) At the very least, Auburn and Agresti consider us deserving of an answer, even if it's a rather potty one.

But "The Lake House" is also a remake of a 2000 South Korean film called "Il Mare" (a picture I haven't seen, although now I'm curious about it), and perhaps that explains why it doesn't quite feel like your typical popped-from-the-mold American romance. There are chunks of dialogue in "The Lake House" that deserve to sleep with the fishes: At one point Kate says something along the lines of "I wish I could be a shoulder for you to lean on," which made the needle on my self-helpy-helperton meter soar into the red zone. Kate (who has a demanding job she's not sure she ever really wanted) and Alex (who has a distant, unyielding father in the form of Christopher Plummer) are both searching for meaning in their lives, and connection -- a standard theme.

And yet Agresti doesn't always make the choices you'd expect. Sometimes I couldn't quite figure out where he was hoping to steer the movie: Was he making a quaint charmer, a florid weeper, an Emily Brontë-flavored tale of beyond-the-grave obsession? "The Lake House" has elements of all three, and they're not mingled successfully.

But even if you don't always know what Agresti is working toward, sometimes what he's working against is more important. "The Lake House" has a somewhat similar story line to last year's dismal "Just Like Heaven," in which Reese Witherspoon played an ambitious doctor who was actually dead -- or at least almost dead. But "The Lake House" doesn't have the chipper, jaunty tone of that picture; it has a far more somber cast to it, and for all its supernatural romantic trappings, it essentially takes death seriously. Even Agresti's choice of source music is surprising: The movie opens with a muted, wistful-sounding ballad from the superb, off-the-radar English outfit Clientele; later we hear the Eels, Carla Bruni, Stan Getz and Nick Drake. Agresti may be a fairly conventional filmmaker, but at least he's bucking the trend of repackaging '80s new-wave hits as the ideal soundtrack for modern romance.

And if "The Lake House" has nothing else, at least it has Keanu Reeves. Bullock is perfectly serviceable here: Her performance has some gravity; she doesn't throw off the aura of desperate cuteness that sometimes dogs her. But Reeves is the soul of the movie -- he's not so much playing a character here as simply being a presence.

Reeves has the kind of casualness that people often confuse with "doing nothing." He's not an aggressive actor; what makes him so charming to watch, and so moving, is the way he keeps his emotions in check -- as if displaying them too baldly would be a way of disrespecting them. Reeves has some lovely moments here, many of them seemingly tossed off: When Kate (in one of the few scenes where the two characters speak to each other directly) explains why she so dearly loves Jane Austen's "Persuasion," he listens carefully, attentively, and then politely challenges Kate's devotion to a work in which a happy ending isn't guaranteed: "Why do you like that?" he asks, in a way that suggests he really wants to know the answer.

And in one of the picture's most beautifully shaped scenes, Alex looks at an old family picture and can't help breaking down. We live in an era when it's supposed to be OK for men to cry, but we feel uncomfortable when they actually do it. We want men to be open about their feelings -- but not too open. Reeves plays this particular moment as if Alex has revealed something of himself involuntarily. We feel as if we've intruded upon something private, a moment we weren't intended to see. Reeves isn't a splashy actor by nature; he thrives in negative space. But his slight reserve makes him more alive rather than less. Even when he's playing a dreamy romantic lead, he's never anything less than flesh and blood.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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