Forget craigslist or a local singles bar. According to The Lake House, the best place to find your soul mate is the mailbox. Provided your letter receptacle has magical properties and the postal inspector doesn't start snooping around, it can be the ideal conduit for true love. At least it works for lonely Chicago-area professionals played by Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in this enigmatic romance. Exactly how is a mystery that's never solved.
Bullock plays Kate, an overworked physician who moves out of a modern glass-and-steel residence designed by a famous architect. Reeves plays the architect's estranged son, Alex. Alex is also an architect and was working on a local condo development when he occupied the house two years prior to Kate. The two are able to communicate with each other via letter and an unexplained form of telepathy while somehow simultaneously living in the house. It's unclear what's really going on other than they're falling in love and it's got something to do with a man she unsuccessfully tries to revive after he's hit by a bus.
Altering the laws of time and space on film is nothing unusual, but it's all for naught in a relationship picture if no tangible human connection is made. For all its magical realism and relative beauty and intelligence, this is a confusingly downcast chick-flick -- a chilly structure containing russet-colored symbols of modern isolation. The mailbox and the architecture of Chicago are the only things that come to life.
Although the mystery remains a mystery, their failure to connect as characters (and actors) is the film's real pitfall. Sure, it's hard for busy professionals to meet the right person, but Bullock's cheerless Kate needs to get with the program. The fact that she's in 2006 and he's in 2004 is no excuse. Alex describes her as having "unguarded eyes" and I'm not sure whether that's attributable to fatigue from long shifts at the hospital or hours of off-screen crying. She never really perks up. Reeves' even-keeled obliviousness serves Alex well, because otherwise he'd go crazy trying to figure out how he met his despondent Florence Nightingale.
Twice we see scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious playing on a TV. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman make one of the most romantic screen couples ever in that noir thriller, and the juxtaposition is neither accurate nor flattering. That kind of chemistry doesn't just show up one day in the mail. Despite not having a scene together, the actors that could conceivably create such sexy tension are Christopher Plummer, who takes on yet another small but crucial role as Alex's father, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, portraying Kate's wise colleague. They bring a classy exoticism that's more reminiscent of Grant and Hepburn than the very American, arguably lifeless pairing of Bullock and Reeves.
In addition to Il Mare, the Korean movie on which it's based, and Speed, the action ride in which the two leads were first paired, The Lake House brings to mind the 2004 romance The Notebook and last year's Reese Witherspoon-Mark Ruffalo romantic-comedy Just Like Heaven. It endeavors to evoke the passion of the former, but as in the latter, any spark is smothered by the supernatural premise. Perhaps blurring the plotline is Argentine director Alejandro Agresti's way of staying above the melodramatic fray. As he did with Buenos Aires in his charming film Valentin, Agresti turns the city of Chicago into a character of sorts. Using Alex’s architectural vision (he leads Kate on a tour after leaving a marked-up map in the mailbox) the city's buildings are presented in a fresh light.
In the final analysis, not being able to figure out exactly how their bond is forged doesn't drastically alter one's reaction to The Lake House. The British rock group Keane offers two 60's-sounding romantic ballads, one during the title credits and another during a crucial scene. But another song on the soundtrack really captures the dominant mood -- Carole King's "It's Too Late" with its memorable refrain "Something inside has died and I can't hide/And I just can't fake it."
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG" for some language and a disturbing image.)