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Saturday, May 25

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2 of 5 stars
Directed by Tod Williams.

Starring Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster, Elle Fanning, Bijou Phillips and Mimi Rogers.

Several reviewers have fellated Jeff Bridges over his acting in the film, and sure enough, he is as reliable as ever, but in such a flaccid story, I don't quite get their enthusiasm: The Door in the Floor is a stupid movie, with characters who don't act like people do in real life (except, perhaps, stupid people). Not poignant, not especially funny, certainly not tragic in any real sense (as some critics have asserted) -- and yet, at the same time, not even so bad that I can hate it as much as I want to, The Door in the Floor is little more than a shining example of Hollywood mediocrity. This is pseudoliterary nonsense made solely for middle-aged idiots to flatter their own supposed intelligence; which is, I guess, my way of saying it's a pretty strong Oscar contender.

Loosely based on the first third of the best-selling John Irving novel Widow for One Year, which centers on the 4-year old Elle Fanning's character of Ruthie Cole (with the later two segments in the novel jumping forward to Ruthie's mid-thirties and early forties, respectively), screenwriter and director Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) pushes the setting forward from 1958 to some indistinct time in what is supposed to be, judging from a reference to Air Jordans and the cars used in the movie, the late '80s or early '90s. In the film, the story has been rejigged to focus on the young Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster), a recent high school graduate who travels to a small town on an island in upstate New York to work for the summer as an assistant to Ted Cole (Bridges), a womanizing, alcoholic children's book writer/illustrator who has lost his driver's license because of, presumably, drunk driving.

Upon arriving in town, he meets and is instantly infatuated with Ted's estranged wife Marion (Kim Basinger). After losing both of their teenage sons roughly five years before, Marion and Ted's marriage went on the rocks, and they are currently living separately, with each spending alternate evenings in a rental house in town while the other watches Ruthie, who sleeps at their home the entire summer. When Marion walks in on Eddie jerking off to her bra and panties, she is initially embarassed but soon encourages him by laying out a sweater or hers that he likes and another set of her underwear for him and, later, she not only deflowers him but continues to have a sexual relationship with him for the rest of the summer, leading to a complete breakdown of Ted and Marion's marriage.

With more than one reference to Eddie's similarity in appearance to Tom, this sexual relationship with Marion takes on a grotesque Oedipal tone, in addition to simply being statutory rape. As one or two other reviewers have noted, I don't think the film would be eliciting nearly as many positive reviews as it has if Ted Cole were screwing a female writer's assistant, but such is the nature of Hollywood's double standards. As in films like The English Patient or The Bridges of Madison County, if a woman cheats on her husband, it is attributed a kind of poignancy -- yet if a man cheats on his wife, especially with a younger woman, it is vile and disgusting.

Unlike those two films, we are never lead to believe that Marion has any deeper feelings for Eddie than a vaguely maternal fondness, this adds to the perversity of their relationship. But throughout the movie we are only allowed to see Marion acting like a sad sack over the loss of her sons; being an emotionally detached mother to Ruthie, whom she clearly wishes never to have had; or having passionless sex with Eddie, leaving her a rather one-note character despite Basinger's nicely subtle performance of this one note. To its credit, though, these instances of nudity and sex are never depicted as in any way erotic.

It's somewhat interesting, and annoying, to note that with as much female nudity as there was in this film, which in addition to Basinger's sex scenes with Eddie also includes full frontal, side and rear nudity by a rotating Mimi Rogers (as Mrs. Vaughn, the woman Ted employs as a figure drawing model and whom he is screwing on the side), the scenes showing Ted Cole's fondness for his birthday suit (there are no less than three) are handled, in typical Hollywood fashion, with kid gloves. While I'm not especially eager to see Jeff Bridges' 55-year-old penis, the double standard is rather juvenile, especially given that none of his nude scenes are sexual in nature.

There are a number of indirectly answered or simply unanswered questions in the movie that are, of course, addressed in the book, but unlike some reviewers, apparently, I don't believe that baggage brought in from any book should be considered when reviewing its film adaptation; nevermind that most of the viewers of the film haven't read Irving's novel, if it's not in the movie, it simply does not count. Just as it's ridiculous to argue over what's in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, because it is never stated or even clearly alluded to in the film what its contents are, it's also ridiculous to state, for example, regarding Ruthie screaming upon first seeing Eddie in the hallway (and, again, when she walks in on Marion and Eddie going at it doggie-style), that it's because she thinks she sees a ghost, because (despite the fact that this is explicitly stated in the book) this is never made clear in the film.

We can infer that Ruthie might think that Eddie is her dead brother Tom (whom she only knows from photographs and stories told to her about the photos), based on a couple of comments about how much Eddie looks like him (as well as the fact that both characters are shown early on in photographs running in track gear), but beyond that is entirely in the viewer's imagination. While I frequently prefer things to be left to my imagination, I don't think my own imagination is any basis to judge the work of filmmakers by (don't get me started on the final scenes of Matchstick Men and The Shawshank Redemption, two otherwise solid movies I felt were tarnished by spoon-feeding the viewer a totally unnecessary happy ending). It might make watching the film more enjoyable, but it is hardly something the filmmakers deserve credit for.

A cursory glance through the novel surprised me with how much of John Irving's dialogue has remained intact -- in many cases, it is taken verbatim, and the dialogue is occasionally good, particularly in the too-few instances between Eddie and Ted where Ted is actually discussing the art of writing. Ted's criticisms of Eddie's short story (which we never hear) ring true of The Door in the Floor as well, including the accusation of being "purple" and "pretentious." The acting is mostly fine, but so little happens in the film that makes any real sense that it undermines any real emotional involvement with the story. Why, for example, doesn't Ted answer Eddie's questions about the accident that killed his sons earlier in the film, except that it's supposed to be dramatic? The troubling answer is, it's neither dramatic or realistic -- it's simply contrived.

When we finally arrive at the scene where Ted tells Eddie the story of Tom and Tim's deaths, we learn that part of Marion's trauma stems from discovering Tim's severed leg at the scene of the accident -- after the rest of him, bleeding to death, has been taken way via helicopter. Perhaps it's nitpicking to find it so annoying that director Tod Williams (or Irving) really thinks that trained paramedics wouldn't notice that the leg was missing or however else this scenario is supposed to have happened, but in any case it just comes off as stupid, forced and unbelievable -- just like entirely too much of the dramatic action in this flick.

I feel faintly ridiculous saying so, but despite the strong performances (of a ludicrous script) by the two adult leads and occasionally artful imagery by Williams, the only aspect of this film that truly impressed me was Elle Fanning (younger sister of Man on Fire's Dakota Fanning). In her few scenes, the four-year-old actress delivers a shockingly good, even nuanced performance for someone her age. Someone cast her in a live-action Alice's Adventures in Wonderland now, please.

The Door in the Floor is playing at the Landmark Century, Renaissance Place, 600 N. Michigan, the Esquire, and the Evanston Century 12/CinéArts 6.

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Steve / July 27, 2004 5:13 PM

Doh! I suspect this is the last time you'll be accepting a review assignment from me. But you saved me $9, most of which I'll blow on I, Robot at the Davis tonight....

Gordon / September 10, 2004 10:12 AM

Look like Dakota Fanning, not her younger sister Elle, is going to be in a live-action Alice movie (both, in fact) ... I was close.


About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didnít like the movie that much.

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