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For a change, The Door in the Floor is an American movie that is strongly character-based and screenwriter/director Tod Williams, whose second outing this is, is to be commended on that basis. Unfortunately, the balance among the characters is badly skewed and, as well, they are an unsympathetic lot, so, despite the thoughtfulness of the screenplay, the film fails to win much audience sympathy.
Based on a segment of John Irving’s novel, A Widow for One Year, thecentral character, Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) is a wildly successful author of children’s books–neither a writer nor an artist, he says with more than a touch of false modesty, but an entertainer of children. He’s not above stealing lines from his four year old daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning)–"a sound like someone trying not to make a sound."
Cole and his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) tragically lost two teen-aged sons and are dealing with their loss in different ways. He has taken to alcohol and has engaged in a series of extramarital affairs, affairs in which he trades on his bigger-than-life reputation and presumably irresistible charms to achieve intimacy and expose the vulnerability of his partners, only then to abandon them with cruel disregard.
Marion, on the other hand, has sunk into deep mourning, still in a constant state of despondency, of emotional retreat even now, five years after the loss of their sons. The couple have decided on a trial separation, splitting time with Ruth, between their grand East Hampton home and an apartment in the nearby town. (At least the film was shot in East Hampton, but the script suggests the only way to leave East Hampton is by boat, which is annoyingly inaccurate.)
Into this situation is plunged the third major character, a naive prep school student from Exeter, Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), hired by the Coles for the summer. Eddie thought he was to be the writer’s assistant, but Marion tells him he was really hired to be Ted’s driver, since Ted lost his license. (Further motivations for his hire surface as the story develops.). Eddie and Marion fall into a torrid affair, while Ted is deeply involved with his current conquest.
The title of the film is also the title of one of Ted’s books and it’s a variation on one of the classic, central themes of children’s literature–the frightening unknowns hiding somewhere nearby, whether under a door in the floor or in Sondheim’s Woods or down Alice’s rabbit hole. Children, the innocents, must venture out into life with all its risky experiences, including hurts and losses and disappointments and the mysteries of sexuality, too; it comes with the territory. Ted and Marion have suffered a loss so painful that, at least for now, it has crippled them emotionally and seems to have destroyed their marriage. Life does take its victims.
Eddie, on the other hand, is just venturing into the vulnerability of adult experience; he’s bound to find reward as well as disappointment. And little Ruth, still a small child, doesn’t escape the tragedy hanging over this family; though it happened before she was born, she struggles to make sense of the brothers she knows only through photographs. There’s a lovely moment when Eddie comforts Ruth after she’s had a cut finger stitched up. "As you grow," he tells her, "the scar doesn’t." It’s a positive note to the daughter of parents who, as adults, have to cope not so much with scars, as with wounds that won’t heal.
The problem here is that Ted, in a dead on turn by Jeff Bridges (Seabiscuit, K-PAX), is, for the most part, a thoroughly dislikable character. His misbehavior may be explained by his grief, but he’s no less pleasant to spend time with, nonetheless. And Marion, in being portrayed as thoroughly despondent, ends up being a one-note character. It’s not through any fault of Basinger’s; that’s the way the script was written. Young Eddie (to mix a metaphor)is a clean slate with raging hormones, thrown in way over his head in a situation with which he’s unequipped to cope.
The only character who becomes genuinely sympathetic is little Ruth and she is guaranteed to steal hearts away. But one out of four is hardly batting well enough to keep the film afloat. Perhaps sensing this, Willams has written in a number of moments of presumably comic relief which are not especially amusing and make things worse, rather than better. And a number of moments of frank sexuality (around body parts, around masturbation) elicited embarrassed laughs from the audience. That’s also indicative of awkward handling by the script and direction.
Still, there’s a lot of intelligence in this script, and a genuinely serious attempt to offer something more than the cotton candy of most summer movies. Williams surely will have more successful projects in the future.