How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “The Lake House”
Or, why you should stop overanalyzing and accept a magic mailbox at face value.
Let’s get something out of the way: I’m not here to defend The Lake House as a legitimately good film; I’m not quite ready to sacrifice my credibility at that altar. However, is The Lake House, despite its many problems, a movie that I (and possibly you, dear reader) might enjoy? Despite its many failings, this early-aughts, high-concept rom-com has its fair share of earnest bright spots. And I’d go as far as to say that it may even be okay for you to like the movie.
The Lake House is about Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) and Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) who meet by writing letters to one another. There’s a Hollywood catch, though: They are living two years apart, and the mailbox to which they deliver their letters is some sort of magical time travel device. It’s basically The Shop Around the Corner meets a Craigslist “Missed Connections” post, meets...I don’t know...Looper. If you look up the term “Needlessly High-Concept” you’ll find a picture of Bullock and Reeves making out in a time vortex.
At first glance, it’s difficult to comprehend why anyone would like this movie. Frankly, The Lake House is probably the laziest time travel movie of all time, and that’s taking into consideration Hot Tub Time Machine and Interstellar. Although, if you replace that hot tub with a mailbox, and swap random and dispassionate comedy with romance, then Hot Tub Time Machine and The Lake House are sort of the same movie. It’s also surprising that the many fans who flocked to see Interstellar — a film whose box-office take nearly quadrupled that of The Lake House — didn’t show up for The Lake House. After all, they both work largely off the premise that love is strong enough to break the laws of the space-time continuum.
Dialogue in The Lake House is heavy-handed, which doesn’t really play to Reeves’ strength as a quiet and reserved performer. The characters’ lines range from a little silly to outright ludicrous. For the movie to work at all, its two main characters must narrate what they’re reading and writing to one another, which makes them seem a little too crazy to be viably romantic. (Though, to be fair, it also might mean that they are perfect for one another). To make matters worse, director Alejandro Agresti arranges the characters to be in the same locations, two years apart, as they carry on their written conversation. This sort of works, cinematically, but if you actually stop to think about it, the conceit falls apart. Then there’s Christopher Plummer, whose presence is absolutely wasted in the role of the elder Wyler, as he plays the sort of detached, yet still-somewhat-caring parent that he seems to have played almost exclusively since the early nineties. The movie’s casting, across the board, leaves something to be desired. It doesn’t feature many people of color—though maybe that represents a sort of subtle commentary on the socioeconomic politics that have kept Chicago unofficially segregated since the city’s founding. It’s possible, right?
So, what does The Lake House get right? As it turns out, quite a few things. For starters, Reeves rocks a dad-bod long before the dad-bod was “in.” And, it almost goes without saying, one of the reasons why Bullock and Reeves keep getting work is that they’re both relentlessly charming, even if they share one hell of an awkward kiss to close out this time-jumping adventure.
Excluding the awkward narration that the actors had to endure, Agresti actually conveyed the time travel pretty well. His stylistic touches, like split screen shots, fade-ins, and a few other tricks seamlessly bring the characters together on-screen, even if they aren’t “in time” with one another. Sure, it’s no Dunkirk, but it works.
Agresti also makes full use of Chicago’s historically amazing architecture. The best sequence in the movie occurs twenty-five minutes in, when Wyler leads Forster on a walking tour of the city’s architecture. Agresti uses a telephoto lens to shoot the buildings, compressing the depth of field and making the facades appear as though on the same plane. The sequence is so striking it almost feels like it belongs to a different movie.
Finally, lets circle back to the high-concept premise of this movie. “High-concept” generally means that a film utilizes a plot device that easily and quickly allows one to relate to the premise (as opposed to, say, long and drawn out character studies, which necessitate a higher degree of subtlety). The term has become synonymous with films that feature contrived or ridiculous premises. The point of setting up a situation like the one in The Lake House is that it immediately drops the audience into the story with very little set-up. The downside is that we never really learn about the inner logic behind many of the elements on which the plot hinges. We simply must accept, for example, that the mailbox sends letters through time, without any further elaboration. The upside here is that the premise, though silly, is effective. High-concept movies can be pretty fun if you let yourself get carried away by them. We all love a bit of movie magic, and nothing says magic like a mailbox that doubles as a portal through space and time.
The Lake House likely does not belong in anyone’s Top Ten. For Bullock and Reeves, who have both been going strong for multiple decades, it ranks close to the bedrock of their career arcs. But in terms of sheer fun and joy, The Lake House delivers. There are earnest moments in the movie that make you sit up a little straighter, when you genuinely feel for the characters and can’t help rooting for them to finally come together. Sure, you then remember you’re watching a movie about a magical mailbox, and you chuckle and say to yourself, “No, I’m better than this.” You might even reach for the remote to change the channel. But then comes the scene in which Bullock plays chess against a dog while drinking white wine, and you think, “No, maybe I’ll watch a couple more minutes.” You realize that you’re not too good for this movie. None of us are. And that’s why it’s a guilty pleasure.