Door in the Floor, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As a character study that examines a pair of reprehensible individuals, The Door in the Floor does an excellent job. The problem with the film is simple: how many people want to spend nearly two hours in the company of such characters. The viewer's supposed surrogate in the film, a 16-year old boy by the name of Eddie (Jon Foster), is so ineffectual as to be almost invisible. What starts out with the earmarks of a coming-of-age story turns into a tale of the disintegration of the marriage between two disagreeable personalities. If that's your kind of movie (and it is, to a degree, mine), you will find more here than unrelieved bleakness and boredom. It is certainly unlike typical summer fare.

The two major characters personify nearly every unsavory characteristic inherent in human nature. Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges at his scraggliest), a well-known author of children's books, is living a dissolute life. A perpetual drunkard and debaser of women, he spends most of his waking hours wandering around his house in a bathrobe, playing racquetball in a converted barn, and painting nudes. His wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), is little better. She's a bad mother to her 4-year old daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning), is emotionally closed-off, and ends up seducing an underage boy who bears a creepy resemblance to her dead teenage son. Her marriage to Ted is on the rocks. It has been unstable for some time, never having recovered from the tragic accident that claimed their sons, Tom and Tim.

Eddie enters this stinking stew of emotional wounds like a Christian being fed to the lions. He's a relative innocent - a 16-year old virgin with few social skills but a burgeoning desire to write. He considers it a great honor to have been chosen by Ted as his assistant, but his attention soon switches to Marion. He develops an infatuation for her which she promptly exploits. Meanwhile, Ted calculates how to use his wife's indiscretion against her in a potential custody suit.

The Door in the Floor appears to transpire in a time warp. The setting is clearly delineated as present-day, yet, based on the state of technology, the Coles seem to be stuck in the 1980s. Ted still writes his stories on a typewriter (for unspecified reasons, he resists the idea of getting a computer - "maybe for my next book," he remarks at one point), uses a rotary phone instead of a cell or portable push-button, and drives cars that are only a little newer than the phone.

The film arrests our attention in the same way that a wreck does. Ted and Marion may have survived the accident that killed their sons, but their marriage did not. It has lain in ruins for years, and all it takes is one catalyst - the arrival of Eddie into the twisted dynamic that has become their interaction - to alter things permanently. As relationship autopsies go, this one is effective, although the scenes I thought worked the best are the ones where Ted mentors Eddie on writing - even if some of his advice is brutal.

Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger give powerful performances. Bridges is always good at this sort of tortured role, and Basinger returns to the form she showed in 8 Mile and L.A. Confidential. Opposite them, Jon Foster is out of his depth, and that's one of the film's problems. The actor has too little presence to hold his own against Bridges and Basinger. Mimi Rogers has an odd, semi-comedic part as one of Ted's models (she and Basinger bear all, striking another blow for the equality of aging women where nudity is concerned), and Elle Fanning (the younger sister of Dakota) is striking as Ruth.

The Door in the Floor concludes on a contrived note, possibly because this is the kind of a story that doesn't have a conventional beginning or ending. The director/writer (adapting from the first third of a novel by John Irving) is Tod Williams, whose only previous credit is The Adventures of Sebastian Cole. It's hard to qualify his sophomore effort as an unconditional success. For the most part, The Door in the Floor is well-made, and it held my attention throughout, but this is one of those motion pictures where it's easier to admire than like the final result. Nevertheless, I recommend it for those who are attracted to dark films about dissolute characters with tragic backgrounds.

Door in the Floor, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2004-07-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1