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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Bridges' brilliance lifts melancholy Irving adaptation
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Door in the Floor
Three and half stars out of five
Dir: Tod Williams
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, John Foster, Elle Fanning

The Door in the Floor is a European art film masquerading as a Hollywood melodrama.

It has all the elements loved by Hollywood studios: a big-name cast, complete with a doe-eyed child actor; a script adapted from a bestseller by a famous author; wealthy WASPs cavorting in an exclusive resort area; and plenty of sex and death. The catch is that none of the characters are very likable, the script only covers the first third of the book it is taken from, the resort is East Hampton, N.Y., instead of some exotic tropical paradise, the sex is sad, not steamy, and the deaths are tragic and offstage rather than showy action-movie slaughter.

The result is a complex and melancholy film more likely to please fans of Ingmar Bergman than Jerry Bruckheimer.

Jeff Bridges gives a detailed, layered and often subtle performance as failed novelist and successful children's author and illustrator Ted Cole, while Kim Basinger proves her Oscar for L.A. Confidential was not a fluke. She is nearly note perfect as Ted's wife, Marion, a fading beauty so paralyzed by sadness over the deaths of her teenage sons years earlier in a car wreck that she is incapable of caring for her 4-year-old daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning, younger sister of the omnipresent Dakota).

The book the film is based on, John Irving's A Widow For One Year, is Ruth's story, and her childhood is only a small part of the novel. Director Tod Williams, who also wrote the screenplay, has switched the focus from Ruth to her parents and 17-year-old Eddie O'Hare, an aspiring writer that Ted has taken on as an assistant for the summer at the behest of his sons' alma mater.

Ted has coped with his son's deaths by drinking more and more and increasingly by philandering--using his fame to talk local women into posing as life models for him to paint and then seducing them. As Ted's affairs continue, his drawings become more and more degrading, until his portraits of his mistresses degenerate into crude renderings of their genitals.

It is an open question whether Ted is simply a misogynistic rat or whether his cheating and loathing of both himself and his lovers is a reaction to Marion's withdrawal from the world.
When Ted suggests a trial separation in which the couple will alternate days at the house, Marion wearily agrees.

Eddie develops an instant crush on Marion, awakening feelings in her both sexual and maternal. The graphic sex scenes between the two are shocking for their cold, matter-of-fact lack of eroticism and for their sadness.

Ted uses these feelings to his own selfish advantage, pushing the two together and then using their affair to gain leverage over Marion in their undeclared marital war of wills. Ted, though fearful of breaking with the past, wants to move on with life, whereas Marion is trapped in the past, unable to see a way forward without her sons.

For all his self-indulgence and drunken womanizing, Ted is a good father to Ruth and there is a sympathetic side to his character that shows through as he tells Eddie about the death of his sons and when we see him comforting Ruth when she wakes in the night. He uses Eddie and trashes the teen's attempts at writing, but all the while seems to take pains to protect and teach him.

This being a John Irving story, the pervasive gloom is leavened with humor, often at the oddest moments, such as Ted mistakenly adding the frozen squid ink he uses for his illustrations to his scotch instead of ice during one of the film's more somber scenes.

Bridges fully inhabits the loose-living Ted, even providing the illustrations for his character's Freudian children's books. The Door in the Floor is worth seeing for his brilliant performance alone. A lesser actor would have spoiled the film by trying to make Ted more of a likeable rogue, but Bridges isn't afraid to let the character's darker side show, sketching him as a vicarious philanderer who inhabits a moral universe of deep shades of gray instead of Hollywood's usual black and white.

The movie opens in Japan on Oct. 22.

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