Jeff BRIDGES has long been one of the greats of American film acting. But because his greatness comes under the deep cover of his characters and with an absence of self-aggrandizement, and because he makes relatively few movies these days, the actor's screen appearances can sometimes take on the weight of a major rediscovery. Such is the case with "The Door in the Floor," in which Bridges turns a two-dimensional image into a presence so vital, so filled with breath and blood, that you uneasily fall in love with his character and abandon all thought of the artifice that's brought it to life.
As Ted Cole, the sybarite and failed family man who gives the story a loamy emotional subsoil, Bridges makes certain that this is no easy or ordinary love. A celebrated children's author, Ted lives with his wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), and their only child, Ruth (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota), in an enormous gray house sprawled on a beachfront and filled with photographs of the couple's two dead sons. Set during a summer idyll, between the storms of the past and those darkening the horizon, the film recounts what happens to the family when a teenage boy (Jon Foster as Eddie) unravels its fiction of wholeness. In a house in which images of lost children hang from nearly every wall, the living turn out to be as fragile as smoke, as ethereal as ghosts.
Directed and written by Tod Williams and judiciously culled from the first third of John Irving's fat Victorian-style novel "A Widow for One Year," "The Door in the Floor" is a modest, serious, pleasingly adult movie about a family coming apart at its well-frayed seams. The modesty comes from Williams' style, which is scaled to a human level, as well as the story's scope. Irving's novel stretches across several decades and pivots on Ruth, who enters as a 4-year-old effectively abandoned by her mother and exits many more pages later as an attentive mother to her own 4-year-old. Williams transposes the story of Ted and Marion's marriage from the late 1950s to the present, underscores Eddie's coming of sexual age and leaves Ruth in childhood. The narrowed focus fills the screen and brings Ted and Marion sharply into view.
When Eddie arrives at the Coles', he enters a haunted house. First among ghosts is Marion, who has abandoned her daughter and husband for a twilight existence of permanent mourning. Irving writes that Marion's face reflects "eternal grief" and it's that sadness with which Eddie later realizes he fell in love. Although she's a good decade older than Irving's character (as is Bridges), Basinger has always been somewhat of a melancholic beauty, a quality that the years have only deepened. (As with Marilyn Monroe in her later movies, an undertow of regret now tugs at all that perfection.) Basinger fixes her face into a mask to play Marion, but while the character seems hollowed out by grief, the actress retains a sense of mystery so that she's not only just a shell.
The performance is delicately filigreed and, along with Bridges', it makes "The Door in the Floor" an unassuming pleasure. Williams has directed only one previous feature, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole," and as with that film he does his best work with the actors. Not that he needs to do much with Bridges, who's superb. Unlike the other great actor of his generation, Nick Nolte, Bridges hasn't yet surrendered his looks to time and experience, and traces of the once-beautiful boy linger in his face. Bridges has often used his beauty against his characters, using it to convey disappointment, long-gone days and faded glory, and always with a palpable absence of narcissism. He's never hidden behind his appearance but uses it instead to measure the distance between man at his ideal and at his truest, most naked self.
If the Coles finally weigh in as less than ordinary (this is a John Irving family, after all), they are touchingly recognizable. Tragedy has nearly turned Marion to stone and left wounds on all the Coles, but it has also delivered them from ordinariness. Ted cares for his daughter, beds the locals (one of whom is played with gusto by Mimi Rogers) and watches while his wife enters a relationship with a boy whose resemblance to one of her dead boys floods her with pleasure and pain.
Whether he's padding around the house nude or painting in a caftan à la Julian Schnabel, Ted seems undiminished and even exalted by his tragedy. He plays the part of the self-indulgent artist and lover with flourish, while Bridges quietly and devastatingly plays the part of the broken man.
'The Door in the Floor'
MPAA rating: R for sexuality, graphic images and language
Times guidelines: Nudity, language, adult themes
Jeff Bridges...Ted Cole
Kim Basinger...Marion Cole
Jon Foster...Eddie O'Hare
Mimi Rogers...Evelyn Vaughn
Elle Fanning...Ruth Cole
A Focus Features and Revere Pictures presentation of a This Is That production, released by Focus Features. Director, writer Tod Williams. Based on the novel "A Widow for One Year" by John Irving. Producers Ted Hope, Anne Carey. Director of photography Terry Stacey. Production designer Thérèse DePrez. Editor Affonso Gonçalves. Costume designer Eric Daman. Composer Marcelo Zarvos. Music supervisor Beth Amy Rosenblatt. Casting Ann Goulder. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.Exclusively at the ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226, and Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 477-5581.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times