It took him 30 years to pay it off and it took me eight months to fuck it up,” sighs Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), in re House of Sand and Fog‘s titular Bay Area abode, which she inherited from her father. Former Iranian army colonel Behrani (Ben Kingsley) has bought the place, at auction, for a pittance. Behrani moves in, refurbishes, and plans to flip for profit, so that at last he and his long-suffering wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) can enjoy the more refined life they knew in Iran. Airlessly melodramatic, full of moral brow-furrowing, this adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s novel nevertheless does a great service in shining a light on a silent disease affecting 10 if not 12 Americans: envelopophobia, the fear of opening one’s mail.
Reeling from a wrecked marriage and wobbly from rehab, Kathy lacks the will to sift through the correspondence that filters through her door slot, realizing that she’s failed to follow up on an erroneous tax request only when county officials wade through those improbable envelopes to evict her. Cop Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), with kindness and/or lust in his heart, semi-stalks her as she relocates to a fleabag motel and then her car. He leaves his family, shacks up with this unwitting femme fatale, and begins to menace the new inhabitants with misplaced Proposition 187 vigor. House is a tale of two cleaners on a collision course: Kathy vacuums other people’s swank digs, and Behrani harpoons roadside trash, a gig ill-befitting his résumé. All ramrod posture and martial punctilio, he parks his Benz at a hotel garage, and changes into an immaculate suit before coming home to his family. He works the night shift at a convenience store, scrupulously entering the price of the Snickers he snacks on. These early glimpses of Behrani’s secret, scrimped life have a simple power that the film soon dissipates.
Kingsley lends Behrani a soupçon of Sexy Beast fury. He’s utterly convincing but less than compelling, due to a lopsided plot that tries to drum up sympathy for the Kathy-Lester axis with all the subtlety of Neil Peart playing “Taps.” After one of too many climactic scenes (Kathy attempts suicide twice in about 10 minutes), the viewer senses not the inevitable gears of tragedy, but the clunky manipulations of plot, and the sorry fate awaiting everyone in this foggy House is less wrenching than acted. Lesson: Open your mail!