George Monroe, an architectural model fabricator, is fired when he refuses to use computer technology. At his boss's refusal to let George keep a few models, he destroys all but one of the models with a spindle from an architectural drawing. As he exits the building with the remaining model, he collapses and is rushed to the hospital, where it is revealed he has advanced stage cancer and any treatment would be futile.
George decides to demolish the home left by his father and replace it with a house in keeping with the neighborhood. He enlists his son, Sam, who is alienated from his stepfather Peter and his mother Robin. Sam must spend the summer with George, who has not revealed his terminal condition, and help him with the house, but Sam makes it a point not to help him. When George refuses to give Sam money unless he works for it, Sam toys with becoming a male prostitute, but is nearly caught and flees from his first encounter. This leads him to steal George's Vicodin.
George slowly reconnects with Sam. Robin decides to assist as well, and she finds herself rediscovering George. Also joining in the construction are Alyssa, Sam's classmate who lives next door with her mother Colleen; local policeman Kurt Walker, George's childhood friend; Sam's young half-brothers Adam and Ryan; various neighbors; and eventually Peter, even after separating from Robin when she tells him that her feelings for George have re-awakened. George tells Robin of his disease, sending her into shock. George tells Sam, who is betrayed and accuses George of being selfish and takes refuge at Alyssa's house. George collapses and is found by Robin the following morning. Complications arise when neighbor David Dokos tries to halt construction because the building's height exceeds the allowable limit by six inches. His plans to halt the project are stopped by Sam, who recognizes him from his prostitution attempt and blackmails him.
Sam puts Christmas lights all over the unfinished house and shows George the gleaming house from his hospital window. The next morning, Sam returns to finish the house and Robin sits beside George until his death. Robin goes to the house and tells Sam about his father's death. Sam inherits the house he finished building. Sam gives the property to a woman who has been living in a trailer park. As a girl, she was injured in a car crash caused by his grandfather.Kevin Kline as George Monroe
Kristin Scott Thomas as Robin Kimball
Hayden Christensen as Sam Monroe
Jena Malone as Alyssa Beck
Mary Steenburgen as Colleen Beck
Jamey Sheridan as Peter Kimball
Ian Somerhalder as Josh
Scott Bakula as Kurt Walker
Sam Robards as David Dokos
John Pankow as Bryan Burke
Mike Weinberg as Adam Kimball
Scotty Leavenworth as Ryan Kimball
In Character Building: Inside Life as a House, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, director Irwin Winkler confesses he never realized the rekindling love between George and Robin was a key aspect of the script until he saw the emotion displayed by Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas in their scenes together. Winkler encouraged his cast to improvise moments leading into and following their scripted dialogue, many of which were included in the final film.
In From the Ground Up, another DVD bonus feature, production designer Dennis Washington discusses how he was required to construct an entire street of houses leading to Sam's house, which was perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes, California. The new house was built on another site, then dismantled and transported to the film set as each section was needed. Because the film tracked the progress of the dismantling of the old house and the construction of the new one, it had to be shot in sequence. When the film was completed, the house was dismantled, moved, reconstructed, and enlarged to become a library for the Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Brentwood.
The soundtrack includes "What You Wish For" and "Rainy Day" by Guster, "That's the Way" by Gob, "Live a Lie" and "Somewhere" by Default, "Sweet Dreams" by Marilyn Manson, "Water" by ohGr, "Rearranged" by Limp Bizkit, "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell, "Gramercy Park" by Deadsy, and "How to Disappear Completely" by Radiohead.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was shown at the Boston Film Festival before going into limited release in the US on October 26, 2001.
Life as a House received mixed reviews from critics. It holds a 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 105 reviews.
The film opened in twenty-nine theaters in the US and grossed $294,056 on its opening weekend. It eventually earned $15,667,270 in the US and $8,236,521 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $23,903,791.
Hayden Christensen was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role and won the National Board of Review Award for Breakthrough Performance by an Actor. Kevin Kline was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. The film won the Audience Award for Favorite Feature at Aspen Filmfest.
New Line Home Entertainment released the film on DVD on March 26, 2002. It is in anamorphic widescreen format with an audio track and subtitles in English. Bonus features include commentary by director/producer Irwin Winkler, producer Rob Cowan, and screenwriter Mark Andrus; Character Building: Inside Life as a House and From the Ground Up, documentaries about the making of the film; four deleted and/or alternate scenes (one with William Russ, originally cast as Kurt Walker but replaced when he was injured in a motorcycle accident after filming began) with optional commentary; a theatrical press kit; and the original trailer.