Remember what a fun couple Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves were in Speed? Well, forget that. In the slow, heavy The Lake House, Bullock and Reeves play the mopiest lovers to hit the big screen since Tony and Maria channeled Romeo and Juliet on the fire escapes of New York City. It’s hard to imagine a pair of sacks sadder than Kate Forster, a physician in a busy Chicago hospital with a distinctively ER rush and bother to it (“I need an MRI, stat!”), and Alex Wyler, an architect whose oedipal struggles with a remote father have led him to confine himself to hackwork in condo construction. Both are lonely and unfulfilled. Both own mysteriously similar-looking scrawny mutts. And both have been tenants in a charming lakeside home on stilts not far from the city — though not at the same time. Which means something mystical.
Based on the South Korean sci-fi romance Il Mare (2000) and directed by Argentinian filmmaker Alejandro Agresti, who made the inconsequential but charming Valentin, The Lake House may be the most convoluted film ever made about people in glass houses.
Playwright David Auburn (Proof) offers in his screenplay much more psychological and existential insight than the story requires. When Kate vacates the house, she leaves a note for the new tenant, and so begins a correspondence of escalating intimacy. But there’s a catch — Kate is writing from the year 2006, and Alex is marooned in 2004, a predicament that renders nearly audible the groan and creak of surplus contrivance as the plot strains to bring an epistolary love affair from the twilight zone into the corporeal realm. Outside the house sits an unusually gifted mailbox with a red flag that pops up like a waggish erection with the arrival of every handwritten missive from one lover to the other. The notes come so thick and fast and lugubriously, you may wish for the occasional Sharper Image catalog to lighten things up.
Kate and Alex dangle lovers who ooze unsuitability. Alex’s girlfriend can’t even get it together to buy a pair of boots for a visit to his construction site, and Kate’s reliable but charisma-free boyfriend (Dylan Walsh) labors under the dispiriting name Morgan Price, which makes him sound like a lump of venture capital. Meanwhile, Kate and Alex lob strange gifts across the time barrier — a cluster of trees for her, a posthumous family memoir for him — while trying not to notice that the two are made for each other.
The chemistry is a touch lopsided. Without action and special effects to prop him up, Reeves has never been much of a romantic lead. If there’s a reason to see The Lake House at all, it’s Bullock, who ekes out the quiet suffering of an ordinary woman with an appealing lack of fuss that recalls Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl or Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny. But Bullock isn’t enough to hold up this enervating movie, which lumbers along until, at the end, it takes one last alienating leap into suspension of disbelief that lost me altogether. Watch for clumps of tearful women explaining the ending to men rolling their eyes and hoping to go for a beer.