The Door in the Floor (2004)
John Irving is one of the most accomplished and popular fiction writers of our times. His pulpy, unconventional, and compassionate novels have translated into many films with varying degrees of quality (World According to Garp, good; Cider House Rules, okay; Simon Birch, dreadful). The Door in the Floor is an adaptation of his novel, A Widow for One Year, but it only adapts the first third of the novel. This time around will the absence of quantity directly shape the quality of an Irving adaptation?
The plot for The Door in the Floor almost sounds like something you’d see late at night on Cinemax. Eddie (Jon Foster) is a teenager learning what it takes to be a writer. He becomes an assistant to Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), a giant in the world of childrens literature but a playboy at home. Eddie spends the summer at Ted’s quaint cottage and is instantly smitten with Ted’s estranged wife, Marion (Kim Basinger). Theirs has been a loveless marriage ever since a tragic accident killed their two sons. Both are handling the grief in their own ways. Ted has become bitter and takes his anger out on his manipulation of other women, notably a neighbor (Mimi Rogers) who poses nude for his paintings. Marion has become insular and turns into a stone whenever the accident is mentioned.
Eddie tires of his glorified chauffeuring duties for Ted and his mistress. He spends his lonely days fantasizing about Marion, including masturbating to the image of her clothes. When Marion accidentally stumbles into this embarrassing situation, she not only calmly apologizes but lays out additional pairs of clothing for Eddie to get his kink. This opens the door for Eddie to engage his fantasy, and embark on a deflowering tryst with Marion. Ted’s reaction isn’t one of anger or resentment but more of a job well done. It is around this time when we realize that Eddie looks remarkably like her two lost sons.
The film’s best moments are not the colorless, tepid tryst between Eddie and Marion, or the broader comic moments with Teds assault on tact; oh no, the best moments are when anyone onscreen shares time with Ruth (Elle Fanning), Ted and Marion’s precocious 4-year-old daughter. She’s a tad demanding, like insisting to know where every picture of her family remains, but comes across as adorable without stepping over into cloying. Her interaction with Bridges is wonderful, her wide-eyed questioning is sweet, and her acting is much more authentic than her sister, the more seasoned Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire). Hopefully the Fanning family has learned some dos and donts from the Culkin family.
Bridges performance is amazing. He bares more than just his backside in this film. The role of Ted is very meaty, and Bridges is the perfect actor to sink his teeth right into it. Bridges is alarmingly coy, blending a disarmingly comic roly-poly ability, as well as a brooding, stinging anger barely masked by ego and affability. I cannot imagine anyone else stepping into Ted’s shoes and delivering a better performance. Bridges’ tortured and droll work may be Oscar material.
Basinger’s performance is equally amazing. Amazingly bad, that is. Her character is supposed to be shattered by the loss of her sons, but Basinger plays the role so heavily intoxicated by grief that Marion becomes nothing more than a walking ghost. She’s so zombie-like for the entire film, that her performance could be rivaled by a coma patient. For some reason unbeknownst to me, ever since winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1997, Basinger has yet to follow with a really good performance.
The Door in the Floor is Jon Foster’s real big break as a young actor. His previous roles amount to little, including Kevin Costner’s son in 13 Days and the vitally integral Gas Station Cashier in Terminator 3. Some awkwardness is apparent in his rise to larger material, but Fosters apprehension serves his character best, like a dinner scene between him and Marion where he tells a bad joke to break the ice. Foster’s performance is a bit bland, but that’s because his character is more of a transparent adolescent fantasy.
Poor Mimi Rogers, a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Cruise Number One. She’s a capable actress, and a fine-looking woman, but she’s been given such a small one-note character that it seems almost exploitative that such a well-known actress spends the majority of her time with her robe around her ankles. A late scene involving her violent hysteria at being dumped by Ted and it is meant to be comic but it seems more like a fizzy tantrum. All this and she gets the dubious notoriety of having a drawing of the most sensitive part of her anatomy projected in glorious widescreen.
By now an audience is more or less used to Irvings mix of slapstick and grief, of pathos and situational humor. The Door in the Floor follows this tried-and-true recipe and provides a healthy amount of entertainment for an audience. It can effectively make an audience laugh and supply knots in their throat at separate turns; however, in the harsh light of day, if you strip away at The Door in the Floor you’ll find that most every character is self-involved, curt, closed off, and just plain unlikable. Ted is a jerk. Marion is a zombie, and not so great a mother. Eddie is bland. The only real character worthy of empathy is Ruth.
Now, movies dont necessarily all have to have likable characters, and in fact some of the most interesting and memorable characters are unlikable, but for a family melodrama its important to feel for their grief instead of feeling their grief. If you cant feel for the characters then youre just watching without any baited interest. Many films can make you feel bad by watching someone on hard times, but it’s a true accomplishment if you feel the character’s personal pains (and somehow the films of Lars von Trier accomplish both). Theres little investment beyond the surface level of amusement. So, The Door in the Floor is amusing,but it struggles to be anything beyond because of the limitations of its characters. For some, a movie that provides surface-level amusement from polished actors is good enough, and in some instances Id agree.
Director Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) also served as the adapter of Irvings dense work. Williams knows a thing or two about family melodrama and the denial of guilt, and he keeps the pacing brisk and the laughs at an even pace. Williams’ best decisions are on the small visual notes he hangs on, like a stunning, visually alluring final image. The story is a bit uneven in tone, thanks to Irving’s eccentric source, but Williams saves his narrative whammy for the very end, and Bridges brilliantly delivers the backstory we’ve been holding our breath for.
The Door in the Floor is a solid, if surface-level enterprise in the exploration of guilt and mourning in a family setting. Bridges gives an amazing and memorable performance that helps make you forget about the rest of the films somewhat lackluster acting. Fans of Irving’s works will likely be taken back in pleasure, and fans of adult melodrama will not likely walk out disappointed. The Door in the Floor has glimpses of something more but settles for being a well-acted, nondescript affair.
Nate’s Grade: B-