The Door in the Floor
Director : Tod Williams
Screenplay : Tod Williams (based on the novel A Widow for One Year by John Irving)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Jeff Bridges (Ted Cole), Kim Basinger (Marion Cole), Jon Foster (Eddie O'Hare), Elle Fanning (Ruth Cole), Bijou Phillips (Alice), Mimi Rogers (Evelyn Vaughn)
Based on the first third of John Irving's typically epic novel A Widow for One Year, Tod Williams' The Door in the Floor is a portrait of people in pain-drawing apart, coming together, but always flailing hopelessly in their own personal way. It's an impenetrably sad film, even when Williams digresses from time to time from the film's overall defeatist tone to indulge in some slapsticky comedy that reminds us of Irving's penchant for mixing the comic and the tragic, the emotional and the grotesque.
Jeff Bridges, perfectly channeling his shaggy-dog charm into a portrait of comfortable, well-worn arrogance, plays Ted Cole, a failed novelist who has since found success and wealth as an author and illustrator of creepy children's books. We hear him read aloud from one of these-the titular The Door in the Floor-which is about a pregnant woman who fears a gaping hole in her cottage into which children have gone and never come back. That maw is the film's unifying metaphor, as the characters are all afraid to look inside themselves lest they be faced with something they don't want to see.
Ted's marriage to his beautiful but deeply saddened wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), is coming apart. Several years earlier, they lost their two teenage sons in a car accident, and the subsequent birth of a daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning, just as blonde and adorable as her older sister Dakota), now four years old, has done nothing to dull the pain and loss. In fact, it has made it even more painful, as Marion has withdrawn deeper into herself, basically forfeiting any role as a mother and leaving Ted to do most of the parenting. Ted is a naturally good father, if a lousy husband. He philanders with local women who he seduces by getting them to pose naked for his "sketches" and then treats them with increasing cruelty. His most recent lover/conquest is a middle-aged socialite named Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers) whose eventual explosion and attempt to literally kill Ted for his transgressions are played off as comic relief.
Into this quiet maelstrom comes Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster)-awkward, virginal, and all of 16 years old. He is an aspiring writer who Ted takes on for the summer as an assistant with the idea that Eddie will learn the ways of being a professional writer, although he spends all his time retyping Ted's latest manuscript and driving him around town. Eddie immediately develops a crush on Marion, despite the icy distance she puts between herself and others. Separated from Ted, Marion eventually takes Eddie as a lover, partially because she's touched by his crush on her and partially, we suspect, in a sad attempt to alleviate her own pain. Sex as a balm for the wounds of life is a well-worn trope in dramatic fiction, but unfortunately the relationship between Marion and Eddie feels truncated and sidelined.
It starts off well, with a funny/touching scene in which Marion accidentally walks in on Eddie masturbating while looking at her bra and panties. Director Tod Williams and the actors handle the potentially disastrous scene with nuance and tact-just look at the way Eddie slowly returns the clothing to the bureau, all the time shuffling with his head down, as if he's plotting a quick escape, but doesn't have the gumption to go through with it. For her part, Marion does everything she can to alleviate Eddie's humiliation, and in this scene you can feel a connection burn between them. After that, though, their relationship is perfunctory, lacking in the emotional heat that would match their physicality (we find out how many times they do it over the course of a few months, and it's a pretty astounding number).
That's the way most of The Door in the Floor plays out. There is something almost too familiar about its themes of marital discord, familial breakdown, and taboo relationships, but some of the individual scenes are well done enough to transcend the feeling that we've seen these somber evocations before. The beautiful upper New York scenery provides a fitting backdrop, suggesting that all the beauty in the word-natural and material-is never enough to overcome wounding that is soul deep.
By the time the film draws around to its conclusion, not much has been solved. The lesson seems to be that pain is a part of life, so learn to deal with it. It's not a particularly satisfying observation, although Williams almost rectifies the story's lacking by ending with a pitch-perfect, poetically sublime image that is beautiful in its stark simplicity.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
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