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THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR * * * *

CAST: Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster, Elle Fanning, Mimi Rogers, Bijou Phillips, Louis Arcella, Robert LuPone, Rachel Style, Amanda Posner, Larry Pine, John Rothman, Harvey Loomis, Mike S. Ryan,

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Tod Williams

Ted Cole, a magnetic, heavy-drinking writer of popular children’s books, and his moody wife Marion haven’t had much sex since the death of their two teenage sons in a car crash several years ago. Not with each other, at any rate; Ted has managed to have lots of sex—much of it kinky--without Marion. Who are his bedmates? For the most part, women he’s wooed into posing nude for his surreal book illustrations.

Nevertheless, Ted and Marion do continue to share a life of privilege and surface pleasure on a handsome beachfront estate in New York’s tony East Hampton. He writes and illustrates his books there, plays a brutal game of squash with his male friends, and occasionally bicycles into town to get drunk or to give readings from his work, followed by sexually charged discussions with comely admirers. Marion, far less gregarious, drifts through her days haunted by memories of thickly swirling snow, a car suddenly severed in half, and the still, bloodied bodies of her beautiful sons. Not helping the healing process in the least is Ted’s daily ritual of browsing through framed photos of the boys with Ruth, the four-year-old daughter who was conceived in the hope of filling the intolerable void in the couple’s life. The girl is obsessed with absorbing every physical detail and emotional shred of the stories behind the individual pictures, as if in this way she can bring the brothers who fill her dreams back to life.

A dysfunctional family, to be sure. Yet Marion assumes she will continue to follow her dry, joyless path without passion and without change. Two jolts prove her wrong. First comes Ted’s announcement that part of each week he will be living in town, and the other part of each week she will be living in town, an arrangement he describes as a trial separation. The second, even more startling, surprise is the unexpected appearance of a teenage wannabe writer Ted has hired as a live-in assistant for the summer. His name is Eddie, he’s gawky but attractive, and he’s a dead ringer for the older of their two sons. And of course Eddie's brain is instantly aswim with fantasies centering on Marion, horny impulses that soon lead to genuine first love.

Does the timid youth muster the courage to fess up to his feelings, and does Marion take him as a quasi-incestuous lover? If you’ve read John Irving’s "A Widow for One Year"--the first third of which has been adapted for this film--you know the answer. Even so, you are apt to be astonished by the freshness, subtlety, humor and heartbreak writer-director Tod Williams brings to a story that could so easily have slipped into soap opera or slopped over into farce. The writing is sharp, penetrating and cliché-free; the direction both disciplined and spontaneous, and bracingly unsentimental. Williams more than delivers on the promise shown in "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole," his offbeat 1998 comedy-drama about a boy coping with his stepfather’s decision to become his stepmother.

And he gets more than a little help from an extraordinary ensemble. Jeff Bridges’ portrait of a talented, lusty, vain, prankish, deceitful, frightened artist and writer is arguably the best work he has ever done on screen, a wondrously complex, bigger-than-life character who never begs for our affection but gets it all the same; Kim Basinger, fragile, steely and preternaturally beautiful, is superb as the tormented Marion; Jon Foster, playing the 16-year-old dreamer who comes to view his mentor as a monster, is a natural who seems never to be acting, not even in his loss-of-virginity scene; Elle Fanning (Dakota’s kid sister) is amazingly unspoiled and soulful as Ruth—a role that, if inadequately performed, could have derailed the entire movie; and Mimi Rogers is a totally shocking, totally naked revelation as Mrs. Vaughn, a hot Hamptonite model who knows precisely how to handle a knife, as Ted discovers on the thrill-packed day he tries to dump her. Talk about full-frontal attack!

"The Door in the Floor" is a movie that takes a lot out of you, but it gives you a lot more back in return. And that makes it a rarity on the contemporary American film scene.