Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hidden Treasure: The Door in the Floor

When John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year came out in 1998, it was said to be unfilmable. It's a sprawling, decades-spanning story that follows Ruth Cole from childhood through middle-age. It had three distinct sections, each focusing on a reflective period in Ruth's life. No one in Hollywood wanted to touch it.

Then one day, a young writer named Tod Williams went to Irving and said he wanted to adapt his book into a movie, but only the first section. Irving was thrilled. He sold the rights to Williams for $1.

And that's how The Door in the Floor (2004) was born.

Ruth is 4 years old in this film and is played by the precocious Elle Fanning. Her parents are in an unhappy marriage. Her two older brothers were killed in a car accident. Ruthie was born after the accident so she enlists her father to tell her stories about them through pictures that are displayed in the family's home. Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) is an esteemed writer and artist, "an entertainer of children," and clearly adores his little girl. But his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) has never emotionally recovered from the loss of their sons. She's shut off from the world and has become a distant mother and wife.

One summer, Ted hires a college student to work with him at their home in the Hamptons. Eddie (Jon Foster) wants to be a writer and relishes the chance to work under a respected author, while Ted, who lost his license a few years back, really just needs a driver.

Eddie is immediately drawn to the reclusive Marion and the two connect in ways that eventually awakens both from their respective shells.

Williams not only wrote the film, but he also directed it. For a novice, it's an impressive, assured effort. The screenplay is unforced and refreshingly adult. The sex scenes have an almost disturbing angle to them. Eddie is barely legal and he reminds Marion of one of her sons. It's hard to fully grasp her motivations for sleeping with him, but we don't have to understand. We can only empathize. It's the first time she's felt something in years.

Kim Basinger, who won an Oscar for L.A. Confidential 8 years earlier, shows us that given the right material, she can knock one out of the park. Her sadness is palpable. It's easy to see why Eddie is so drawn to her. She's radiant, even when she isn't full of life. For me, this is Basinger at her finest.

Jeff Bridges, an actor who is always good, also has never been this good. He elevates every scene he is in. Ted Cole has mourned for his sons, but he's still alive. He still feels. He hired Eddie specifically because he looks like one of his sons. Before Eddie arrived, Ted initiated a trial separation from Marion, freeing her to act on her impulses. You could really say Ted second-handedly orchestrated the whole affair, but what did he expect the outcome to be? Did he want Marion to leave? Nothing is wrapped up neatly, nothing is clearly answered. Eddie's arrival made a bigger mess of things that already were, but perhaps that is what Ted and Marion really wanted. Eddie shook them out of their stalled marriage.

Foster, a newcomer (his brother Ben is the more recognizable actor of the two), plays Eddie with a sweet naivete. But as he embroils himself into the Coles' drama, his respect and admiration for Ted grows into disdain. It's a solid, layered performance.

Ruth Cole is the star of the novel but is relegated as a minor (though pivotal) character here. Fanning is endearing in the role, displaying a similar charm and grace that her sister, Dakota, is known for. Mimi Rogers is terrific in a small, daring bit as an unfortunate footnote to Ted Cole's disastrous unraveling.

The Door in the Floor is not a perfect movie. It's slow and some of the character motivations are questionable. But I love how the actors bring these characters' imperfections to life. They are all flawed people behaving indecently and irrationally yet we kind of understand why.

There is a scene towards the end of the film when Basinger and Bridges confront each other for the first (and last) time since the affair. No words are said. They look into each other deeply, their history and pain far beyond anything any of us could imagine. They touch each other affectionately. They communicate through their eyes, their fingers. I can't think of a better scene to demonstrate how good these actors are. Bridges and Basinger are at the top of their games here, making The Door in the Floor an absorbing, thoughtful viewing experience.


Brent said...

Great choice and great review. It's a great movie and as you point out the performances are tremendous. I think the really interesting thing about is the way he captured the sense of "Irving" the film is imbued with.

Dave said...

Thanks Brent! You're right - it's an "Irving" film through and through. I'm sure he's pleased with the final product.


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