2 stars (out of 4)
"A Door in the Floor" is the kind of novel adaptation that constantly reminds you of its literary origins. That is, the characters talk and behave the way characters in novels do - so if you like lyrical dialogue and fanciful metaphors, you're in luck. If you're inclined toward characters whose behavior is more grounded in the way people act in the real world, you may be less forgiving.
Tod Williams, whose previous credit is the uneven 1998 coming-of-age indie drama "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole," has reverentially adapted the first section of John Irving's 1998 novel "A Widow for One Year." The novel's central character, novelist Ruth Cole, is just 4 years old during this stretch, which covers a stressful period in her parents' marriage as they struggle to rebound from the not-so-recent deaths of their two teenage sons.
The father, Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), writes and illustrates children's books while carrying on exploitative relationships with women who model nude for him, such as the wealthy Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers). The mother, Marion Cole (Kim Basinger), remains grief-stricken, depressed and thus distant to Ruth (Elle Fanning), who turns to her dad for most of her parental affection. These parents rarely see each other, taking turns sleeping in their house and an apartment in their Long Island beach town.
Ted's way of shaking the family out of its stupor is to take on a summer intern, a teenage boy named Eddie (Jon Foster), who just happens to resemble the dead sons. Eddie is an awkward, skittish type who yearns to soak up Ted's writing knowledge, but Ted has little for him to do other than retyping manuscripts with commas or dashes rearranged.
So Eddie has plenty of time to indulge his imagination when it comes to Marion, a would-be poster woman for Hot Moms Anonymous. When she discovers Eddie fetishizing her sweaters, her maternal instincts and sexuality are activated simultaneously. She can guarantee that Eddie, perhaps unlike her boys, won't die a virgin.
Much writerly skill is required to sell such material work on the page. On the screen, it doesn't scan.
Can we so easily believe that a grieving mother wants to sleep with a stand-in for her sons? If so, Williams and Basinger don't take us deep enough into this character's conflicted soul to make the case.
Eddie is such a blah teen that you can't imagine Marion continuing an affair with him for any special qualities he might have, and Basinger's consistently flat delivery prevents much light from shining through. And when you're reading the book, you're not distracted pondering how fabulous 50-year-old Basinger looks in the near buff.
Bridges' Ted is a more interesting read. He's got a warm smile and distant manner, a placid façade and submerged anger. Bridges' nice-guy demeanor injects extra menace into Ted's promise to Eddie before a squash game in a converted barn: "I'm going to grind you like a fine powder."
Ted wants Marion to be happy, but he's also mad at her and her continued attachment to her memories and detachment from Ruth.
Almost every action Ted takes is at cross-purposes, which is what gives the movie its dramatic tension. The viewer, like Eddie, is trying to get a bead on this guy.
Critiquing Eddie's writing, Ted stresses the importance of "specific details," and Williams includes plenty.
Vivid scenes depict the retrieval of squid ink or the way Ruth has made a ritual of hearing the stories behind each of her late brothers' photos, lined up in the hallway like a portrait gallery.
Less steady is the director's handling of the humor, which veers from Ted's bitingly droll observations to a painfully awkward slapstick sequence involving a raging Evelyn.
What the film lacks most is gravitational pull; something is missing from the center. My guess is it's Ruth. Fanning, like her older sister Dakota, has an eerie ability to appear serene and wholly present, but the movie, unlike the book, isn't about her.
Who's it about? You're never sure. Everyone feels remote, even presumed audience stand-in Eddie.
"The Door in the Floor" feels more about a situation than actual people. It's sensitively rendered, filled with those necessary evocative details, and it never rings true.
"The Door in the Floor"
Written and directed by Tod Williams; based on John Irving's novel "A Widow for One Year"; photographed by Terry Stacey; edited by Affonso Goncalves; production designed by Therese DePrez; music by Marcelo Zarvos; produced by Ted Hope, Anne Carey. A Focus Features release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: R (strong sexuality, graphic images, language).
Ted Cole - Jeff Bridges
Marion Cole - Kim Basinger
Eddie O'Hare - Jon Foster
Evelyn Vaughn - Mimi Rogers
Ruth Cole - Elle Fanning
Alice - Bijou Phillips