Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
The Door in the Floor tells the story of Ted (Jeff Bridges) and Marion Cole (Kim Basinger), an estranged married couple who witnessed the death of their two sons in a freak car accident a few years earlier. Marion is mostly catatonic, and too depressed to bother taking care of their daughter, Ruth (played by Elle Fanning, Dakota’s little sister), a child deliberately conceived to fill in the emotional hole left by the death of her brothers.
Ted, a famous writer of children’s books, has lost his driver’s license and decides to bring in Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster) — a 16-year-old Exeter student who bears a striking resemblance to his and Marion’s dead children — to act as apprentice/chauffeur. Eddie is immediately disillusioned by his asshole mentor and, predictably, becomes infatuated with Ted’s beautifully sad, wasted wife. Marion, with the silent consent of her husband, engages in a torrid, oedipal affair with Eddie, seeking to use him as a surrogate for her lost sons. Meanwhile, Ted carries on his own manipulative philandering with Evelyn Vaughn, played by Mimi Rogers. If the setup sounds like a mind-fuck, well, you’re absolutely right. But it is also a beautiful psychological study of love and grief, replete with symbolism and metaphor.
Though the premise may seem heavy-handed, the layered, nuanced performances manage to successfully thread together the melancholy, pain, and betrayal inherent in the tragic loss of children. Bridges, who seems to epitomize what Irving’s offbeat characters embody, is a man whose self-indulgence is an incurable destructive force in the lives of everyone around him, but whose sheer magnetism compels the audience to overlook his roguish womanizing and find likable what would normally be an unsympathetic character.
If you’ve ever read a John Irving book, you are probably familiar with a few recurring motifs: prep schools, a young man losing his virginity to an older woman, the death of a child, adultery, and, often, dismemberment. The Door in the Floor, based on Irving’s A Widow for One Year, does include many of these stock events, but they’re handled in a quieter, more harrowing way than Irving generally manages.
Irving’s work generally has not translated particularly well in film, largely because his novels are sprawling narratives that explore a large portion of a character’s life. When turned into films, the story often lacks, in large part because the screenwriters (including Irving himself) try too hard to stick to the source material, ultimately abbreviating large sections so that we are left with a character’s forty-year arc encapsulated in a two-hour film. The final product usually feels like a celluloid summary, a series of badly spliced-together scenes from the novel.
Instead of making the same mistake, Tod Williams (who wrote and directed Door) adapts only the first 200 pages of the 600-page novel, changes Widow from first-person to third-person perspective, sets it in the present day (the novel was set in 1958) and seamlessly transforms the story into a snapshot of a single three-month period in the life of the protagonist. In fact, the central character in Widow, Ruth, while still important in Door, is relegated to relatively minor role in terms of screen time. Instead, the major focus of the film is on Jeff Bridges’ character, not necessarily because the story revolves solely around him, but by sheer force of his acting talent.
Although Door has been radically altered from its source, there is little doubt that it is based around an Irving story. There is still a preoccupation with sex (which, as in all Irving novels, is depicted with lurid detail), the disintegration of the family, the interplay between comedy and tragedy, and a whimsical plotline; but where the author often overly sentimentalizes, Williams resist that urge, jettisoning Irving’s maudlin cutesiness in favor of a prescient, spare and beautiful approach. Indeed, Williams manages not only to make a movie that is superior to its source material, he captures Irving’s spirit even better than the author could himself.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and lord over a small online publishing fiefdom. He lives in Ithaca, New York.