Little Ruth hears a sound in the house and immediately goes to wake her father up. “What kind of sound?” he asks. “A sound like someone trying not to make a sound.” Daddy picks up a pen and a piece of paper and jots it down. That’s a writer for you. Standing back and observing, listening for le mot juste, picking up on the specific details that make a story come alive. Ted Cole is great at telling stories, not so good at living them, as tends to be the case with writers.
Ted (Jeff Bridges), his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) and their daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning) are spending the summer in their East Hampton beach house together, but they’re not really “together”. Life hasn’t been the same for the Coles since their teenage sons died in a car accident. Marion crawls into herself while Ted loses himself into booze, writing and squid-ink drawings of vaginas, leaving Ruth to play with framed pictures of the dead boys. Enters Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), a high school student who comes to work as Ted’s assistant. Eddie wants to become a writer like Ted, but his attention soon turns to Marion. Somehow he manages to bring her out of her shell, and out of her clothes…
“The Door in the Floor” is adapted from John Irving’s “A Widow for One Year”, most precisely the first third of the epic novel. It explores some of Irving’s favorite themes: fatherhood, infidelity, loss, the writer’s life… It’s kind of like The World According to Garp, minus the rampant quirkiness.
Then again, Jeff Bridges does bring his share of quirks to the role of Ted. Scruffy, laidback, prone to walk around bare-assed or in a muu-muu, always a drink in hand… He’s almost like the Dude if he managed to write successful children’s books. It’s a wonderful character and a wonderful, endlessly enjoyable performance. Ted can be selfish and careless, but he remains sympathetic. There’s also a killer third-act scene in which he tells the story of how his sons died that makes us feel even more for him.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t nearly as compelling. Kim Basinger spends the whole film either looking vaguely sad and staring off into the distance or naked and getting humped by a 16 year old. She’s quite the MILF, but she’s kind of a blank. She never makes us understand how or why her character goes from passive grief to wanton lust. It doesn’t help that Jon Foster is adequate at best; he’s in every other scene yet he barely makes an impression. You get that he’s a horny teenager, and that’s about that.
Writer-director Tod Williams is faithful to the spirit and tone of Irving’s writing, if not to the all the complexities of the characters. This is an elegant production, with that Oscary, literary adaptation, “prestige picture” feel. The pieces are there for a great adult Hollywood drama; cast more resourceful actors as the widow and her young lover and you’d really have something here. As is, I’d still mildly recommend “The Door in the Floor” if only for the way Jeff Bridges brilliantly juggles the comedic and tragic aspects of the material. Too bad the film as a whole is a mixed bag.