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Friday, Nov. 4, 2005
Bridges, again, makes it happen
I must admit, John Irving adaptations are not exactly my favorite sub-genre of literary cinema. Whether it's the strained quirkiness and anecdotal nature of 1982's "The World According to Garp," 1984's "Hotel New Hampshire" or even 1999's "Cider House Rules," there was always something that struck me as a bit smug and contrived.
Irving films had that kind of lithium-like warm and fuzzy feel that inevitably leaves critics describing the film as "human" in their reviews. (As if it's only maudlin meditations on the beauty and melancholy of life that are "human." I await the day some critics dare to describe "Super Size Me" or "Black Hawk Down" as "human . . .")
So when the latest Irving adaptation, "The Door in the Floor," popped up on my radar, expectations were low and plunged even further upon learning that the story's protagonist was a writer -- a wanky approach that often rankles, like with Gary Sinise's superflous charcter in "The Human Stain."
It was the presence of Jeff Bridges in the lead, though, that convinced me to go see this one, and I'm fairly glad I did. I've enjoyed Bridges in many a film -- "The Fisher King ," "The Big Lebowski," "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," to name a few -- but one thing I knew for sure is he'd certainly cut through any flighty, contrived crap like schnapps through a dachshund.
Bridges is an estimably grounded actor, able to wear his characters like a faded old T-shirt. He never seems to be "dressing up" for the occasion -- not even in his tuxedo-clad turn in "The Fabulous Baker Boys." He appears to be just taking it casually, and showing up with what he's got. This is the ability that helps us buy a character, never through showy technique or overplaying, but simply through displaying his own comfort in the role. Bridges never goes "acting school" on us -- he just is. It's a Zen approach, but with a range that's clearly different from the bittersweet minimalism of Bill Murray.
In "The Door in the Floor" (based on Irving's novel "A Widow for One Year"), Bridges plays Ted Cole, a sardonic writer of children's books whose marriage to Marion (Kim Basinger) is on the rocks. The cause seems to be the death, fairly recent, of the couple's two teenage sons in an auto accident. Marion remains lost in her grief, while Ted takes refuge in the love of his remaining child, Ruth (Elle Fanning ), and a somewhat liberal approach to extramarital affairs and alcohol consumption.
Tension is interjected into the situation when Ted takes on an intern for the summer. Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster) is a prep-school senior whose desire is to become a writer. He hopes to gain some useful experience with his internship, but discovers that Ted mostly uses him as an errand boy or chauffeur to his many trysts. Bored and frustrated, he finds himself attracted to Marion.
In one of the film's less plausible scenes, Marion discovers Eddie jacking off over her undergarments, and decides to give him some loving attention. "I felt flattered," she says, with that typical Irving penchant for characters who don't live in the same universe as you and I.
"The Graduate" this clearly isn't, but the generational and sexual tension is played well enough. Basinger remains cold and remote, which she does so well; even when she's having her affair, she refuses to surrender to any fiery passion or romanticism. It is what it is -- a pretty disturbing way of rechanneling the love she had for her own teenage sons. As usual, in an Irving film, this flirts with taboos, but in such a harmless way that hackles are never raised.
The story never really peaks, but just muddles along to a rather messy conclusion. That's life, it seems to say, but the revelatory flashback that provides the context to the previous 90 minutes of the film is all too reminiscent of the device used in "21 Grams" (or, for that matter, "Signs") to really have the required impact.
Still, there's always Bridges, shuffling around in his robe and sombrero-like hat, grizzled and shambolic, equally laid-back whether he's carrying his daughter to bed while telling her a story, or uncorking a bottle of wine as he off-handedly tells a portrait model to undress. He exudes a casual charm that seems unconscious, and it's the one or two moments where he loses his cool that hit you like a slap in the face. Can a lone actor carry a film? Well, in Bridges' case, I'm inclined to say "yes."