Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
"The Door in the Floor" is a psychological drama about the unraveling
of a marriage following the deaths of a couple's two teenage sons.
It is also a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who walks into
their lives and unwittingly changes both of them, for better or worse.
While these interconnecting storylines present considerable potential,
writer-director Tod Williams (1999's "The Adventures of Sebastian
Cole") doesn't know the first thing about satisfactorily developing
characters and relationships. Worse yet, Williams is clueless when
it comes to capturing the truths of human nature, and presenting them
so that the characters' actions are both logical and accessible to
viewers. And amidst all of the bleak seriousness are scenes of over-the-top
farcical comedy, each one of them as out of place as a pig in a chicken coop.
When 16-year-old aspiring writer Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster) comes to
stay with and work for children's author Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) for
the summer, he is unprepared for what he finds. Ted and wife Marion
(Kim Basinger) have recently separated, alternating their time between
their luxurious Hampton home and an apartment in town as they half-heartedly
care for their perpetually curious 4-year-old daughter, Ruth (Elle
Fanning). On the side, Ted paints nude drawings of various women,
including the middle-aged Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), using Eddie
as his chauffeur to get around. Meanwhile, Marion catches Eddie masturbating
one day to her bra and panties, finds herself attracted to the idea
of being desired again, and promptly starts a none-too-secret affair
with the virginal teen. There is even more trouble with the Cole's
than meets the eye, however, stemming from the unexpected deaths of
their two sons several years before, and Eddie is about to get caught in the middle.
Based on the first-third of John Irving's sprawling novel, "A Widow
for One Year," "The Door in the Floor" aspires to accomplish many
things at once, weaving a tapestry about the deterioration of a couple
and the ways in which loss and regret are dealt with, but it does
none of it well. The film's biggest problem is that the characters
haven't been fully thought out or conceived, and the choices they
make seem senseless and, therefore, rather spineless. Ted, a functioning
alcoholic, is thoroughly unpleasant to just about everyone but Ruth,
putting down those around him in subtle ways that make his condescension
all the more hurtful, and taking advantage of Eddie for unclear reasons.
Marion is more or less dead inside until Eddie enters her life; so
depressed is she that one almost expects her to commit suicide at
any minute. She is outwardly nicer than Ted, but so thoroughly uninterested
in being a parent to Ruth that she would rather not be in her life
at all. A particular choice she makes in the final act involving the
family pictures is unforgivable, the final straw of a character that
might have otherwise had some sympathetic shadings. And as for teenage
Eddie, the story is primarily told through his eyes, but said eyes
are difficult to read. Eddie is a hopelessly static creation, and
whatever he learns by film's end is never revealed to the viewer.
Writer-director Tod Williams' study on loss and the plight of his
three central characters aren't quite as emphatic as he wants them
to be because he fails to make them into characters even remotely
deserving of being cared about. Ted and Marion share only a handful
of scenes together, not enough to get a sense of how they truly feel
about each other or how their marriage might have been in the past.
As for the matter of losing one's children, only sparse hints are
given about how life was for Ted, Marion, and their sons before tragedy
hit, and while there are effective individual moments of grief that
feel real, the rest is misguided and opts not to deal with it at all.
For a similar motion picture, 2002's "Moonlight Mile" is uncountably
superior and more accurate. That lovely film, for one, knew how to
elicit natural humor and human emotions out of dark subject matter.
In comparison, "The Door in the Floor" is disastrous in its embarrassing
attempts at screwball comedy; none of it works, none of it is necessary,
and the unfunny shtick clangs loudly in between sequences that are
supposed to be dramatic and resonant.
The cast is a uniformly excellent one, but the actors find varying
degrees of success. Jeff Bridges (2003's "Seabiscuit") is conniving
in a slyly understated way as Ted Cole. Concentrating on his facial
expressions throughout and nothing else, the viewer would think Ted
is a nice guy; listening to the words he speaks and the way he carries
himself around others, his true colors show. As the devastated, but
still irresponsible, Marion, Kim Basinger (2002's "8 Mile") delivers
the film's strongest turn. Until the wrongheaded, confusing action
she takes at the end, Basinger poignantly burrows herself into the
helpless state of a woman who believes she has lost everything that
matters, and doesn't want what she has left (namely, her husband and
daughter). Disappointingly, the payoff of her character is inadequate.
As the ambitious, quiet Eddie, Jon Foster (2001's "Life as a House")
holds up his end against veterans Bridges and Basinger, but struggles
to find depth in a flat character that, despite having the most screen
time, changes the least of anyone. In smaller parts, young Elle Fanning
(2003's "Daddy Day Care") has some work to do before she matches her
borderline-genius actress sister, Dakota, but is pretty sharp, all
the same, as daughter Ruth; Bijou Phillips (2000's "Almost Famous")
is memorably honest in her fleeting moments as Ruth's unsuspecting
nanny; and Mimi Rogers (2003's "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met
Lloyd") courageously bar es all for no reason in the hateful, thankless
role of one of Ted's painting subjects.
There are good scenes in "The Door in the Floor" that take their time
and unfold to cogent effect, but that is where its successes are cut
short. The music score by Terry Stacey (1999's "Trick") is plainly
intrusive, hammering home the emotion of each moment to the point
where it takes you out of the story . The film is aimless and unknowledgeable,
so stubborn not to wrap anything up that it could end at any time
in the last fifteen minutes and would be no more worse off. And that
is when the real ending arrives. The final shot, meant to be an ironic
surprise, is frustratingly confounding and too cute by a half . If
it is supposed to carry extra purpose or symbolism, that meaning is
lost in Tod Williams' murky filmmaking. "The Door in the Floor" is
unfocused beyond repair.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman