That loveable rascal! Americans have a soft spot for men who live with gusto, especially the ones whose gusto is applied to coaxing favors from the ladies. In The Door in the Floor Ted Cole (excellently portrayed by Jeff Bridges) is one of these familiar figures: 50-plus but trim, bed-rumpled hair, slouching around in a flowing dressing gown, ice cubes clinking in a glass, and rasping out the kind of profundities we expect from a writer and artist (not from a real writer and artist, from the kind they have in movies).
Toward the end of the movie, after a number of sordid of events (though not all of them; the movie represents only the first third of John Irving’s novel A Widow for One Year
), the innocent-bystander babysitter, Alice, is accused of acting superior. She retorts that she knows she is at least “morally superior.” Ted Cole draws out his response in tones of mock wonder: “‘Morally superior.’ What a concept.”
How dare anyone think themselves morally superior? We don’t know much about Alice, but unless she’s selling puppy pelts out of her basement she’d have a long way to go to beat this bunch. Ted and his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) are separating, and Ted has hired a prep-school student, Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster) to be his assistant for the summer. Since Ted now writes children’s books, which weigh in at 500 words, there isn’t much for a summer intern to do. Eddie assists mostly by driving Ted, who has lost his license due to DUI’s, to his assignations.
Then there’s Marion. It seems that Ted has also brought Eddie in to comfort Marion, and before long they are comforting each other in a variety of positions. Unfortunately, Ted and Marion’s four-year-old daughter, Ruth (radiant Elle Fanning) stumbles in on one such engagement and runs out again screaming. Later, Ted scolds Eddie for scaring Ruth: “For a child, doing it doggishly must seem particularly animalistic.”
Not too many decades ago, all this would be the stuff of porn movies. What makes it Serious Cinema is, first, gorgeous art direction and, second, the fact that Ted and Marion are bereaved parents. In fiction, having a dead child makes any kind of crazy behavior O.K.
Remember, now, that they don’t really have a dead child. The writer has invented a dead child as a short-cut way to present characters in profound distress, without actually having to build such characters step by step, like they did in the old Dostoyevsky days. This exploitation of one of humanity’s most rending experiences is an outrage against parents who have actually lost children, of course, but all the more so because it is being used to validate bad behavior. Real bereaved parents who acted out in these ways would only make their sorrows worse. But we’re expected to be indulgent toward Ted and Marion because they are sad and, properly sympathetic, we can rewind to that scene in the bedroom.
It gets worse. Ted brought Eddie in because he resembles their son Thomas (the Coles lost two teen sons, Thomas and Timothy, in a car crash). When, in an early scene, Marion discovers Eddie fondling her underclothes, and he blurts that he wants to have sex “before I die,” her inviting response is a grand slam of ickiness: incest, necrophilia, and molesting a minor (the actors were 17 and 50). Yet it is not lust that overwhelms her; no one ever had less fun at illicit sex than Marion Cole, who looks frozen whenever she isn’t in tears. And when Eddie asks her the details of her sons’ death she becomes nearly catatonic–”turns to stone,” as Ted describes it.
That’s our cue to expect a Big Dark Secret relating to the boys’ death, and Ted delivers it in a stagy climactic conversation with Eddie. The traumatic sight that sent Marion over the edge seems so contrived that it’s not clear whether it really happened, or whether novelist Ted is simply composing another detail-rich bit of fiction. But it’s so like the kind of detail-rich fiction that John Irving composes that I’m afraid we’re expected to believe it, and an example of why Irving is so hard to believe.
This movie boasts some wonderful performances–expect Oscar talk for Jeff Bridges–and extraordinarily beautiful sets, lighting, color design, and Atlantic-coast scenery. But the values are just creepy. Ted is a letch and a lush, and Marion can tell Eddie exactly how he hits when he gets violent. She also tells Eddie the pattern of Ted’s seductions: an offer to sketch a woman’s portrait, then to portray her nude, then moving to concluding portrait stages of “shame and degradation.”
We see a neighbor, Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), put through these paces. But when Ted tries to end the affair it turns into an uneven slapstick sequence, where Evelyn rips up the pornographic sketches and scatters them on her lawn (how likely is this?) then tries to run Ted down in her SUV. Ted escapes to town and is met by an attractive mother-daughter pair, whom he invites to have their own portraits done as they drive him home. Then a scrap of paper depicting a view usually restricted to gynecologists is slapped against their windshield. Maybe this was a laugh-riot to somebody, but coming in the midst of this comatose tragedy it was not just ugly but leaden.
Most troubling is the use of four-year-old Elle Fanning, little sister of Dakota Fanning, the translucent child beauty who’s already made a dozen movies. Ted and Marion’s daughter Ruth has no functional role in the story, and finally Marion decides to walk out of her life entirely, abandoning her to her careless father’s care. This is regarded as puzzling and sad, not as the astounding betrayal it is. Ruth seems to be there only to deliver lines like “I have sand in my crack” and “Your penis looks funny” (Ted responds with one of the film’s few good lines: after a thoughtful pause, “Well, my penis is funny”). She’s only four years old, she’s as fair and delicate as an angel, and this is what the writers have coming out of her mouth. A four-year-old doesn’t think this up; someone else makes her do it. Sociologists of the future will study The Door in the Floor as they try to figure out how we went so wrong.
Hmm, “morally superior.” What a concept.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. Her latest book is Gender: Men, Women, Sex, Feminism.