By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 14, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the chemistry-challenged specimen of serendipity and romantic fate-tampering called The Lake House, Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock), a melancholy but pretty Chicago doctor living in 2006, meets her soul mate, Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves), a melancholy but pretty architect whose only drawback as boyfriend material is that he’s living in 2004. And not just in his mind, but in reality: The man really exists in a world two years less spam-filled than Kate’s. No problemo. Somehow, via wrinkles in the time-space continuum and fairy dust in the sugar bowl, Kate and Alex are able to communicate with one another from the past to the present. Or is it the present to the past?

Either way, the two bond over their love of the title piece of real estate, a melancholy but pretty glass structure as light-filled, camera-ready, and difficult to get to (it’s built on piles thrusting up from the water) as a movie star’s trophy weekend home designed by a celebrity architect. Kate, who used to rent the place before she moved back to Chicago (to be lonely, work in a hospital, and absorb woman-to-woman advice from Shohreh Aghdashloo as her ER colleague), leaves a note for ”the next tenant.” And the next tenant — actually, of course, he used to live there in the past, when the structure was neglected — turns out to be Alex, whose crotchety celebrity architect of a father (Christopher Plummer) built the joint in the first place. (It’s so not worth being confused here.)

The only real magic in The Lake House is that Kate and Alex have never heard of e-mail: They write to one another in beautifully penned handwriting, on creamy stationery folded into crisp envelopes and stashed in a magic mailbox with an old-fashioned you’ve-got-mail flag right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Freaky! Maybe Alex and Kate actually simultaneously live in 1954 and 1956 and 2004 and 2006!

I never saw Il Mare, the 2000 South Korean film picked up by producers Doug Davison and Roy Lee for export, dismantling, and American retrofitting. (The duo transformed the Asian thrillers Ju-On and Ringu into the American hits The Grudge and The Ring.) So I can’t report what East-to-West challenges — not to mention Bullock-and-Reeves headliner requirements — bested Proof playwright David Auburn as he wrestled the original into a shape suitable for an American audience. But we’ve all seen Bullock and Reeves (apart and, once, together), and it’s clear that Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti, best known in the U.S. for his sugary coming-of-age drama Valentin, has put too much faith in audience fondness for that cute duo who starred in Speed a dozen years ago. Now the stars are doing Slow — she’s winsome on cue, he’s pained.

It’s as if The Lake House team decided that the easiest way to deal with the pesky time-warp thing would be to ram the notion through, counting on viewers sticking around for star smooching. Call me an unromantic logician, but I think the expectation is a leap too far.

The Lake House

  • Movie
  • R
  • 105 minutes
  • Alejandro Agresti