`House Arrest': Just Who's At Fault?

------------ MOVIE REVIEW ------------

X 1/2 "House Arrest," with Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Pollak, Kyle Howard, Jennifer Tilly, Wallace Shawn, Christopher McDonald, Caroline Aaron, Sheila McCarthy. Directed by Harry Winer, from a screenplay by Michael Hitchcock. Alderwood, Aurora, Bella Bottega 7, Everett Mall 4-10, Factoria, Gateway, Issaquah 9, Newmark, Parkway Plaza, Varsity. "PG" - Parental guidance suggested, due to some mature humor.

To the slim degree that it qualifies as a comedy, "House Arrest" is a comedy with rank amateur pathos, and it's totally out of touch with its own superficially treated emotions.

When teenager Grover Beindorf (Kyle Howard) and his kid sister Stacy (Amy Sakasitz) learn that their seemingly happily married parents Janet and Ned (Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Pollak) have decided to separate, the kids respond by staging an anniversary party in the Beindorfs' half-renovated basement. Then the kids, who have secretly sealed off the entire basement, run upstairs and lock the door behind them, threatening to hold their parents hostage until they've worked out their marital difficulties.

It's a great idea for a movie, grounded in a crisis that far too many children can relate to - the looming threat of parental divorce - and the emotional landscape is ripe with edgy comedic possibilities. But "House Arrest" is blind to its own potential, bulldozing the dramatic foundation it should have built upon in favor of lackluster banter, addle-brained teenage high jinks and the false comforts of the Hollywood quick-fix. Hardly anything in this movie resembles realistic human behavior, which makes it even harder to find anything genuinely humorous.

Locking up Mom and Dad seems like a stroke of genius to Grover's classmate tormentor T.J. (Russell Harper); the gorgeous and popular Brooke Figler (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is equally impressed. Along with Grover's best buddy Matt (Mooky Arizona), they all decide to lure their dysfunctional parents into the Beindorf basement, leaving the grown-ups to hash out their differences while the kids proceed to trash the house with a storm of junk food and mischief. The whole time they're monitoring their parents with an improvised two-way video link, the workings of which are, like so much else in this movie, left unexplained and taken entirely for granted.

Given the fact that screenwriter Michael Hitchcock has worked in the acclaimed Groundlings improvisational troupe, and previously wrote the underrated street-youth drama "Where the Day Takes You," it seems likely that "House Arrest" is the victim of a directorial botch-up. Director Harry Winer's earlier "SpaceCamp" was a similar mess of juvenilia.

The movie isn't entirely stiff, paying off with the occasional zinger from one of the parents, who are played with varying degrees of success by Jennifer Tilly, Christopher McDonald, Wallace Shawn, Sheila McCarthy and Caroline Aaron. That's a formidable cast, and they're giving it their best shot while Ray Walston, playing the suspicious next-door neighbor, is reduced to playing a mugging retired-cop foil to the kids' kidnapping scheme.

Aside from its simplistic kiss-and-make-up finale (which at least allows one couple to actually separate), the most annoying thing about "House Arrest" is that it had genuine promise. Maybe it would have turned out better if the filmmakers had been locked into a room until . . . naaaahhhh . . . that's wishful thinking.