It's Kingsley versus Connelly in a heart-wrenching real-estate battle.

House of Pain 

It's Kingsley versus Connelly in a heart-wrenching real-estate battle.

For those who pay no mind to Oprah and her book club, the dispute at the heart of House of Sand and Fog involves the occupancy of a rundown little bungalow just inland from the Northern California coast. It's not much of a place, really; to get a glimpse of the Pacific, you'd have to stand tiptoe on the roof. But for the two combatants in what escalates into a tragic battle of wills, the house comes to mean everything -- the pride of self-worth, the very notions of home and stability. The guys in the yellow blazers down at Century 21 will love it. This is the kind of emotional merchandise they're selling, after all.

Directed by unknown Russian immigrant Vadim Perelman, who has been shooting commercials for Nike, Microsoft and General Motors, this adaptation of Andre Dubus III's popular novel is built a bit more modestly than the all-or-nothing bombast Oprah's book club might have prepared us for. It also boasts top performances from Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley.

Kathy Nicolo (Connelly), a recovering alcoholic who's come unhinged since her husband walked out, has let the little house her father left her practically fall down around her. But the place has always been home, so when sheriff's deputies show up to evict her for unpaid taxes, she's bewildered and angry. In the first place, she doesn't owe any taxes: That's a bureaucratic error.

Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley), an aristocratic former colonel in Iran's army, fled when the ayatollahs came to power. But even shoveling asphalt on a construction site, he remains elegant and willful, and he means to restore well-being to himself, his wife (Iranian star Shohreh Aghdashloo) and his teenage son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout).The first meaningful step is to buy Nicolo's house for a song at public auction and turn it into a version of the vacation bungalow the family once owned on the Caspian Sea. When native entitlement collides with immigrant yearning, we get a startlingly ambiguous look at the American dream.

For Connelly, this part is something like a natural synthesis of the doomed junkie she played in Requiem for a Dream and the loyal wife of A Beautiful Mind. Vulnerable but feisty, Kathy claws after what she knows is hers, and her battle moves us. But we also feel for Kingsley's dignified but disenfranchised immigrant. "Today God has kissed our eyes," he tells his family on the day he buys the bungalow.

Dubus' book, considered in some quarters a literary gem, has its verbal warts. Kingsley, Connelly and a promising new writer-director bring it vividly to the screen. A drama of dreams dashed, opportunities squandered and hopes transformed into horror, this is not pleasant stuff, but it's important and thoroughly heart-wrenching.

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