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The Door in the Floor

Tod Williams, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: August 14, 2004

By Laurence Station

What if a couple, upon losing a child (or in this case two sons, ages 17 and 15), has another baby to help with the healing process -- and then finds itself incapable of raising this child born of grief? Tod Williams' The Door in the Floor explores this unsettling and fascinating question, not to mention a host of other issues. And while it loses its footing along the way, it still proves an absorbing and sobering look at the destructive power tragedy holds over its survivors.

Adapted from the first part of John Irving's hefty novel A Widow for One Year, The Door in the Floor tracks the last few months of a rocky marriage. Despite living apart, Ted and Marion Cole (Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger) attempt to coexist amicably for the sake of their four-year-old daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning). Ruth is obsessed with a collection of photographs of the couple's two dead sons that hang throughout the house. She creates stories that occur before and after the images were captured, fabricating memories of two siblings she never knew. Ted occupies his time by throwing himself into his work (he's a successful author of illustrated children's books). He also sleeps around and exhausts himself in his personal cathartic-release chamber-cum-homebuilt squash court. Marion, meanwhile, is the polar opposite: non-engaged, a ghost of a woman, seemingly incapable of reacting to another living being.

And then Eddie (Jon Foster), an introspective, 16-year-old prep-school student and wannabe writer, enters the family's life. Eddie's presumptive role is to act as Ted's assistant for the summer. What he really is, however, is the audience's surrogate -- our connection to these damaged characters, the plot device by which we get to know them better. And, boy, does Eddie ever get to know them. He learns of Ted's philandering with lusty Mrs. Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), who "poses" for Ted's figure sketches. Marion becomes his masturbatory object of affection and, eventually, his lover. Eddie also bears and uncanny resemblance to one of the couple's sons, and it's obvious Ted has been manipulating the entire situation hoping to both heal Marion and, more insidiously, place her in a compromising situation should a custody battle over Ruth ever occur. (Apparently her one indiscretion will cancel out his numberless multitude.)

Jeff Bridges should clear off space on his mantle come awards season; his work here is phenomenal and will certainly not go unnoticed. The veteran actor manages to bring the right amount of creative buoyancy and bitter resignation to Ted, a man with a severe God complex who's lost his moral compass. He has a daughter he spoils but doesn't know how to raise (thank goodness for nannies); he whores around but is incapable of truly being intimate with anyone. And inspiration is harder to come by -- he gets progressively little writing done, although he does produce a prolific collection of charcoal sketches detailing the female anatomy. And his recounting to Eddie of how his boys died is a heartbreaking study in masterfully executed craft.

Kim Basinger, meanwhile, does all she can with a character that never really changes. She has a sexual affair with Eddie, but it doesn't liberate her from her emotional cocoon. By the end of the film, she's just as lost and dispirited as she is at the beginning. As for Eddie, he leaves perhaps a little wiser (not to mention no longer a virgin), his purpose duly served as our ingress into the wounded heart of the Cole family. As for poor Ruth, well, she'll be materially well-off, but little more than a phantom herself, a byproduct of a doomed couple's last attempt at reconciliation.

Williams does a solid job of fleshing out these interpersonal dynamics, but he falters by trying to insert silly humor into an otherwise downbeat piece, as when Mrs. Vaughn is spurned by Ted and tries to run him down in her car or when Ted's salacious drawings pick the most inopportune time to slap across a car's windshield. The film doesn't need such cheap or contrived sight gags to be effective, and Williams should have excised them and focused exclusively on what does work: a couple, their daughter, and the young man who opens the door in the floor and exposes the darkest aspects of their lives.

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