I have this theory that architects must be the most well-adjusted, least neuroses-riddled of artists. Surely it takes an untroubled mind to spend a lifetime laboring over the intricate patterns of human living, lovingly tailoring your creations to maximize petty pleasures and anticipate practical conveniences, envisioning happy families and facilitating a smooth flow of life through the walls. You really have to love life to want to build it a house, don’t you? Assuming, naturally, that my theory has some merit, does it follow that a bad architect is probably a bad person?
The Architect, Matt Tauber’s quiet, muddled directorial debut, addresses that question with the character of Leo (Anthony LaPaglia), a Chicago architect who has done quite well for himself in part by taking the architectural version of hack work: designing public housing projects that he wouldn’t dream of visiting. The inaptly named "Eden Court", a vintage Leo original (though he points out, somewhat laughably, that it was influenced by Le Corbusier), comes back to haunt him just as his son Martin (Sebastian Stan) is ditching college for unspecified reasons, his daughter Christina (Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere) is succumbing to the grimy clutches of puberty and his wife Julia (Isabella Rossellini) is about to unleash the very dissatisfied bee in her bonnet, which looks to have been gestating for about 25 years. A lot of the tension behind these details is established with swipes rather than strokes, though the actors, particularly Rossellini and Panettiere, do their turns more justice than they probably deserve.
Tauber takes the metaphorical connection between the structural flaws in how we live and where we live all the way downtown, so to speak, to Chicago’s South Side, where Tonya (Viola Davis) has been lobbying to have Eden Court, which she calls “corporate headquarters for gangs," razed and rebuilt. She has sent her brainy daughter (there is also a non-brainy, baby-mommy daughter) to live with a nice black family in a better area, while she remains in Eden Court. Tonya is certain that the design of the buildings is the cause of Eden Court’s problems, and she sets out to convince the architect that he did a bad job and people are suffering because of it; her motivations have a hidden wing, however, as her son leapt to his death on the grounds.
Chicago is famous for a lot of things: pizza, wind, and cubs come to mind, as well as race riots and fantastic architecture. There is a lot to like about Tauber’s attempt to explore the possible intersections of those last two, and the elliptical cross-cutting between the vignettes of Leo and Tonya’s families generally works well, but there is also a tendency to pile up the cinematic sandcastle, to paraphrase Robert Altman, pushing every storyline that crucial smidge too far until it topples into roaring melodrama. Martin’s foray into both his budding homosexuality and interracial “dating" with one of Eden Court’s tenants is probably the worst offender, and it is frustrating to watch a film blow some respectable capital on indulgence in such narrative frippery; it’s like adding gargoyles to a Gaudi.
In response to Tonya’s case against Eden Court, the arrogant Leo will only concede that his design was executed poorly; he insists that his cosmetic remodel addresses all of her concerns. Tonya accuses Leo of building housing, not housing people -- a critical blow for any self-respecting architect -- and indeed, as Leo loses the plot in his life and his work, the connection between the two becomes clear. The Architect suffers from a similar problem: impressive blueprint, but who really needs four bathrooms, or four crises, for that matter? When Leo, worn down by the conflict and a family bleeding outside the lines of his design, finally sees Eden Court for himself, he capitulates to the razing; rather than offer gratitude Tonya calls him out: “You want me to tell you you’re a good man,” she says. “I can’t tell you that.” The Architect is not a bad film, but I feel Tonya’s pain.
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