Films based on the works of John Irving can be an acquired taste, what with his insistence on quirky characters whose charms are displayed whenever he sees fit, regardless of the circumstances. Such preciousness can be pleasant or grating, depending on your inclination.
The Door in the Floor, adapted from the opening chapters of Irving's novel A Widow for One Year, is a film about loss and the implausibility of happiness under some circumstances. When it sticks to the subject, the movie is sad and affecting, a study of people struggling to make do when that's the best they can hope for - and not really caring if some other people get hurt in the process. But then the quirks start popping up and the characters start acting as though they know people are watching, and hadn't we better do something to make us stand apart from the rest of the world? It's as though a different movie is starting to play.
Jeff Bridges is Ted Cole, an author and illustrator of children's books, who lives in a seaside Long Island house with his wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), and their young daughter, Ruthie (Elle Fanning). Also in residence are the ghosts of their two teen-age sons, who died under unexplained circumstances a few years back and whose likenesses sit in picture frames scattered throughout the house.
Ted and Marion's marriage seems to be in its death throes; they aren't hostile to one another, they simply don't pay attention. But when Ted hires a teen-age assistant, Eddie (Jon Foster), who looks eerily like one of their dead sons, attention begins to be paid once again. Eddie lusts for Marion, Marion embraces her role as Mrs. Robinson to the teen-ager, and Ted ... now, there's the question. Did Ted hire Eddie to shake Marion out of her complacency, to make her accept their sons' death and deal with it? Did he hire him as a substitute for their sons (how very Oedipal)? Or did he hire him as some sort of power grab, possibly a preliminary to a divorce action or a cruel joke?
Basinger, a limited actress at best, proves well-suited to the role of an emotionally stunted woman with nothing to fall back on; her emotionless stares and hollow body language have rarely been put to better use. Foster is a little too skittish as Eddie, who finds himself a pawn in a battle he doesn't understand. His characterization does, however, enable us to see a marked difference in his personality once he begins having sex with Marion.
Bridges, one of Hollywood's steadiest and least appreciated actors, is fascinating as Cole, a shell of a man looking for some form of escape from the torment that has dogged him since his sons' death. For now, Ted has achieved an uneasy truce with himself, content to let himself go emotionally and use people only so long as they amuse him. That certainly applies to his neighbor, Evelyn (Mimi Rogers), whom he casually debases while sketching her in the nude.
Writer-director Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) sprinkles his narrative with odd happenings and quirky characters, probably with the idea of lightening the mood. What they really do, however, is cheapen things, keeping the narrative from generating a full head of steam. The Door In the Floor is a character study at its best when its subjects aren't such characters.
The Door in the Floor
Starring Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger
Written and directed by Tod Williams
Released by Focus Features
Rated R (strong sexuality and graphic images, language)
Time 111 minutes
Sun score: * * 1/2