The only thing more cliché than a wholesome American family moving into a cheap mansion, only to realize that the awesome deal they scored was thanks to a supernatural presence or a dark secret, is a city slicking author, so anxious to leave the noisiness of the urban jungle to pen his book, that he moves out to the country or a sparsely populated rural burg, only to then realize that his den is, in fact, a conduit for demonic spirits. It seems that neither has any experience in metropolitan living, for if they did, they’d realize that the inner-city is all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, if a writer really wanted to finish his novel, he could just cage himself inside a small studio apartment, order Chinese food (or Mexican as the mood demands) in-between bouts of genius, and write — hell, I do it every day. Nevertheless, Jim Sheridan’s latest, Dream House, has a bit of both trite scenarios. And, scripted by David Loucka, it has spooked its way into cinemas, bringing with it a messy hodgepodge of familiar tunes, ambitious intentions, and behind-the-scenes drama.
Its premise is as follows: Will Atenton (Daniel Craig), a successful publisher, quits his job in New York, hoping to spend more time with his family and work on his debut novel. To do so, he relocates with his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), and their two daughters, Dee Dee (Claire Geare) and Trish (Taylor Geare), to a quaint New England town. However, while settling into their new home, a humble Victorian-styled crib, they begin to uncover its grisly past as a murder scene. According to local folklore, the father who lived in the house with his spouse and kids was a couple screws loose and, one day, decided to shoot up his family. Of course, that wasn’t mentioned in the estate description and the residents (save for Ann — played by Naomi Watts — who lives down the street) don’t give it much second thought. But as Will pieces together a disturbing puzzle, it’s revealed that the faiths of the man who lived last and the one who entered next intertwine more than he previously expected. And if you’ve seen any of the previews, I won’t need to spoil what happens next.
When a film’s own crew doesn’t like the final cut, none should expect audience members to either. While shooting, Sheridan constantly clashed with Morgan Creek Productions, which financed the production. Eventually push came to shove and the studio took over, implementing their own changes. Neither Sheridan (whose director credit is more of a namesake than a sign of quality) nor the leads have co-signed on the finished product, and have boycotted interviews and public appearances relating to the project. It’s unfortunate that Dream House had to suffer because of corporate greed. Ironically, Morgan Creek’s plan to chop and screw fresh ideas for a couple box office bucks may have worked conversely: With lack of press, underwhelming reviews, and backlash over the official trailer spoiling major plot points left and right, it’d be a miracle if the film broke six figures on its opening weekend.
The disinterest shows. From the moment he steps onscreen, Craig is painfully lethargic. And during an unintentionally hilarious back-and-forth, the audience is reminded that this isn’t the infectiously suave James Bond that we’re used to seeing. Most of the time, the British pretty boy looks more like a deer caught in headlights, as he robotically spews one word responses and pouts when necessary. Weisz is less of a disappointment. Sure, she reads some of her lines with the enthusiasm of a high school student reciting Shakespeare, but she’s still a believable wife and mother. If nothing else, the chemistry between them is decent, albeit a tad underwhelming as they’re a married couple off-screen. But since neither of them is confident in their work, it’d be cruel to further rip apart the otherwise talented performers.
The supporting cast includes Marton Csokas as Jack Patterson, Ann’s estranged husband, and Elias Koteas, who plays Boyce, a creepy neighbor. Like the rest of the film, they’re both forgettable. As for Watts, at least the makeup department did its job.
One of the aspects of Dream House not completely hacked to pieces is the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Many of the shots perfectly reflect the foreboding setting — including a cultish basement, where teenagers secretly gather to celebrate the home’s peculiar history. In addition, there are a few inspired uses of mirrors and shadows. And although it’s not incredibly remarkable, John Debney’s serene soundtrack does compliment whatever atmosphere the film has.
But, as it stands, to the Atentons, the house may have seemed like a dream, but to moviegoers, Dream House is nothing short of a nightmare.