The transition from stage to screen is never easy. Plays, no matter how electric they are performed live, tend to come off as claustrophobic and well stagy once they make it onto film. There are some notable and esteemed exceptions, of course, but more often than not, something vital gets lost in the translation.
Matt Tauber's The Architect is a prime example. Though the first-time director labors mightily to open up David Greig's play with a wide variety of locations, the drama still feels constricted and inert. Some of that can be blamed on Tauber's listless direction but much of the blame falls to Greig's didactic and undernourished narrative.
Anthony LaPaglia is Leo Waters, an esteemed architect and university professor who resides in the wealthy suburbs with his quietly dysfunctional family. There's the obsessive-compulsive wife, Julia (Isabella Rossellini), who's working up nerve to flee her pristine, gilded cage. There's confused college dropout Martin (Sebastian Sans) and 15-year-old Christina (Hayden Panetierre, the cheerleader from Heroes) who struggles with loneliness and her double-D sexuality. Leo's ivory tower ignorance is shattered when the fiery resident (Viola Davis) of one of his early design projects a South Side Chicago housing project shows up at his home asking him to endorse their demolition. Unwilling to accept real world faults in his idealized design, Leo is forced to confront the fissures that run through every facet of his life.
Using architecture as a metaphor for the profound gulf between wealthy white suburbs and crumbling urban communities, Greig's socially conscious drama has much on its mind. There are plenty of provocative ideas to be found in a story about a black mother struggling to save her community from the arrogant benevolence of white patrimony. Unfortunately, the script is unable to communicate its ideas in anything resembling real human behavior. Shuttling from one underwritten family member to another, the story never finds its emotional footing, leaving us with the impression that Tauber and Greig are far more interested in making their point than creating flesh and blood characters. As good an actress as Viola Davis is, her role might as well have been called Earnest Black Mother.
The volatility that exists between black and white families plays out with all the complexity of a sitcom, assigning nearly all the blame on white suburban values. The worst example, among many, is Shawn, the young hustler who befriends Martin. Poor but knowing, he lounges around the projects reading Russian classics by day but turns tricks in the public restroom by night. It's the kind of character that only exists in plays and his tragic fate is telegraphed five minutes after his introduction.
Overall, Tauber's cast acquits itself admirably, turning in complex and heartfelt performances that often mask the inadequacies of the writing. LaPaglia, in particular, conveys the imperious self-satisfaction of a privileged white man who is all too sure of his decency.
Still, it's not enough. The moments where Greig's characters connect with their modest tragedies are all too brief, only hinting at what The Architect might have been if the filmmakers had valued people over plot devices and sentiment over symbols.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.