The Door in the Floor (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
We don't really disagree that much on this film, although Scoop liked it a lot and Tuna disliked it. How can that be? We both found it to be a somewhat too precious and literary film made for a very tiny but appreciative audience. It just so happens that Scoop is a part of that audience! Either way, it is your classic C+ by our guideline, a movie that will be much appreciated by some, but ignored or despised by most.
I guess I could tell you all you need to know about The Door in the Floor by telling you that it is quite an effective interpretation of a John Irving novel (actually only part of an Irving novel, the first third of a book called "A Widow for One Year").
If that doesn't really mean anything to you, I may have to bore you a bit by discussing the form of the 19th century novel. Ya see, it's like this. Modernism changed many of today's most literary novels into works approximating the random nature of life itself - realistic, chaotic, random, often uninteresting and uninvolving. It was not always so. Back in the day, novels were supposed to be more orderly than life. Characters were supposed to interweave cleverly with other characters. People always seemed to deliver those lines we wish we had thought of. Tiny details from one sub-plot would relate fortuitously to the main plot. The novelist's entire world had a population of not billions of people, but only dozens. If you had a long-lost sister, you could be absolutely sure that the only true love of your life, found two continents away from your home, would turn out to be that very sister, thus causing you both untold grief. If you were cruel to a beggar, you could rest assured that it was no ordinary beggar, but perhaps the king in disguise, testing the generosity of his subjects, or perhaps even your own father, whom you thought lost at sea. This type of contrivance, which was then considered to be highly "literary", is now more commonly known by its modern term, "bullshit".
When you get right down to it, the stereotypical novel of our literary tradition was really one big steaming pile of lies that bore almost no resemblance at all to human life. It was meant to be an entertainment, or an edification, meant to draw people in and help them escape from life, or to improve their minds more than mere disorderly real life could do. Thomas Hardy insisted that novels had to be far better than life in every way - more eloquent, more complicated, more entertaining, more interesting, more emotional. The sobs of the characters should be deeper than our sobs, the guffaws more robust. Above all, Hardy's vision of the novel required it to be more connected, and neater than life. The details and characters not only needed to be neatly intertwined, but all that twine had to get tied up into a neat little ball at the end, to offer the kind of closure rarely offered in real life stories.
In my opinion, Thomas Hardy could not have been more wrong if he chose Moe and Curly Howard to host a royal tea party, but there have been many great thinkers who agreed with his conception, and there are many who still do. John Irving is one such person. He still writes 19th century novels. His characters are "bigger" than any people we have ever known. They suffer grander tragedies than we do, at greater frequency, and they react with deeper emotions. Your vision of hell might well include being reborn as a parent in a John Irving novel, because:
Lesson over. Now that the lesson is over, let me repeat the concept found in my first sentence above. This film is based on a John Irving novel, and is faithful to its tone as well as its details.
A perfect example of a John Irving (slash Charles Dickens) contrivance can be found in this movie. An author/illustrator seduces women by persuading them to pose for his books, gradually nudging them toward nude sketches, then finally making pornographic drawings of their open genitalia. He has just come from a confrontation with one woman (Mimi Rogers) who is at the end of the cycle. When she realizes how she has been manipulated, she nearly kills him, not before ripping up all the obscene drawings and scattering them to the winds. Scant hours later, he is in the car with his next prey - a widowed mother and her daughter who are to be inducted to the beginning of the cycle. Interested, but cautious, mom asks, "Just what kind of drawings are we talking about?" At that very moment, the winds decide to scatter one of the author's detailed, sketch-pad drawings of Mimi Rogers's pussy onto mom's windshield.
That's how Irving's plots work. He would probably call that "multi-layered invention", which is a fancy literary way of saying "preposterous coincidence".
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
After all, the English literary traditions, and the form of the pre-modern novel in Europe in general, are based on coincidence and contrivance, and it's worked just fine for us for a long time. To tell you the truth, I'm not really knocking the traditional literary format, I'm just preparing you for what you will get in a John Irving novel or a movie made from an Irving novel. Raunchy, ribald laughs juxtaposed with the tragic loss of children. Writers writing about other writers. Irving writing about the writers who write about other writers. Situations which are much larger than life, coupled with people who overreact to them (yes, even beyond the reactions which such momentous events should produce). Improbable coincidences. Big tears. Tragedy. Bald sentimentality. Big laughs. Precious remarks. Multiple entendres. Lots of sex, or at least lots of discussion about sex or its absence. Dancing circus bears.
Yeah, I don't get the bit about the bears either, but Irving always seems to find a place for them. Just think of it as the literary equivalent of Hitchcock's inserting himself briefly into every film.
Some people love the characters and situations Irving creates. He also has his share of harsh critics. Some people who love his sensitivity are offended by his raunchiness. Some people who love his crude humor are bored by his corny sentiment. Other people think Dickens's time has passed, and that it is time to lay his devices to rest beside him. The way I look at it, great writers should use all the colors in the human palette, so there's really no problem combining suicidal children and raunchy sex jokes, because human lives can and do include both. As for the artificiality, well, I think I can sum up my feelings toward Irving in one long sentence, as follows. Although I have never believed one thing he's ever written; although I find every single situation he's ever created to be dripping with inauthenticity and contrivance; and although I've never found one of his characters to bear even the slightest resemblance to any human being I have ever met in my far-flung travels, I still love what Irving does. In fact, that moment I described above was one of the funniest things I have ever seen on camera, and the humor could not have been created with a credible event.
What else can I tell ya? Perhaps real life is overrated, and ol' Thomas Hardy was onto something. Maybe a novel should be bigger than life and better than life. It certainly seems to work well for Irving. Except, maybe, for the fokkin' bears.
Jeff Bridges plays a writer whose marriage is in the process of dissolution. He is shamelessly involved with other women, but we don't really know whether that is because his wife is a veg, or whether he has always been that way. The wife's permanent state of near-catatonia (which sometimes becomes true catatonia) was triggered by the loss of her two sons in a tragic accident some years earlier. After the tragedy, the couple had a late life baby in an attempt to build a second life, but that just didn't work out, and the semi-catatonic self-absorbed wife was obviously not a very appropriate mother for a small girl.
As the story begins, the writer calculatingly inserts into their lives a young assistant, a summer intern from Exeter who aspires to be a writer himself. The famous author knows that the intern looks like their oldest son, and that his wife will form a bond with the lad. Knowing the nuances of his wife's disturbed thought process, he also anticipates correctly that the bond will become intensely sexual. The story goes on from there, focusing as much on the child as on the parents and the assistant. (Irving's novel proceeds into the girl's adulthood, but this film is about her first memories - a single summer when she was four years old.)
The film's point of view is often deliberately ambiguous. Should we blame the writer for his womanizing, or should we just shrug it off as the same thing any of us would do if we were a sexy, admired writer with a vegetative wife? Is he the cold man who manipulates his lover and attempts to seduce other women callously, or is he the gentle man who writes children's stories and truly seems to care for his daughter? Did he bring the young assistant into his wife's bed to help her heal, or did he hope he could use his wife's pedophilia against her in a custody battle? Does he write children's books because he loves and relates to children, or does he write them to pick up the pretty young single mothers who are the actual retail customers for his books? The script is non-committal, and we are left to make our own interpretations of these actions and motivations.
Irving didn't write The Door in the Floor screenplay, but it may nonetheless be the best-ever attempt to capture all of Irving's calculated excesses on screen. I haven't seen Simon Burch, but it seems to me that Door in the Floor catches Irving's literary flavor, his abrupt tone shifts, and his bittersweet sentimentality as well as or better than any of the previous attempts that I have seen (Cider House Rules, Garp, Hotel New Hampshire), even though Irving himself wrote the screenplay for The Cider House Rules. I would have liked to see more of Irving's humor, which doesn't really show up until very late in this film, but I liked the way the director handled the small amount of comedy he attempted, so maybe a small and effective dose of cathartic laughter was better than having many clumsy laughs destroy the delicate balance between tragedy and yuks.
Like Tuna (see below), I didn't care much for the very last moments of the film. The ending is perplexing and unnecessarily abstract. Symbolism only works when the symbolic action ALSO makes sense on the surface. When a symbol exists apart from reality, just for the sake of having a symbol, it becomes pretension. That's what happened at the end of this movie. Jeff Bridges walked into a door in the floor of his racquetball court, recreating an image from one of his children's books, and dramatically echoing the name of the movie.
Very dramatically. Too dramatically.
Wasn't it Roger Ebert who pointed out that echoing the name of the movie is always trite. I think he was referring specifically to saying the words out loud, as in:
... but creating an image to bring the words of the title to life must be just about as bad. There has to be something about that in the rule book.
Oh, yeah, it makes for a very stirring image as the film ends with his hand disappearing and the door falling, as if he were a troll living beneath the house. Only one thing wrong with it. It ONLY works on the symbolic level. In the surface story, it makes no sense at all. Why would a guy play some racquetball, then crawl through a door in the floor of the court? It would make sense if he had a shower or something down there, but the location of the shower is already established elsewhere, and no purpose is established for the area under the court. So he's just doing something symbolic, descending into a personal hell or something. That is just plain artifice, and draws away significantly from the sincerity of the story.
Jeff Bridges was an inspired choice to play the amoral writer, because he managed to make a potentially monstrous character likeable without being too likeable, sympathetic without being empathetic. Irving tends to write his characters too "big" and too affected to live off of the printed page, but Bridges is always natural, and about the least affected actor I can think of - he's The Dude, fer Chrissakes - so he managed to sand off the hard edges of the affectation and bring Ted down to earth. When are they going to give this guy an Oscar? What a career he has had. For thirty something years - in comedies, dramas, and thrillers - handsome or uglied up - he's been a great leading man, a loveable rogue, a baddie, and a character actor. He's been Robert Redford and Michael Douglas and Dustin Hoffman rolled into one, but he's rarely mentioned when people tick off the great actors.
What about Kim Basinger? Well, she had to deliver two things in this role:
I don't think there is any doubt that Kim is capable of delivering on those two counts. In fact, I can't imagine that they could have considered anyone else for the part. Even at 50 years old, she may still be the most beautiful woman in films, and she could play a thirty year old if she had to, assuming the cinematographer knew what he was doing.
What else can I tell you? Sure I found parts of it artificial and cloying and precious, but I laughed out loud a couple of times, and my eyes seemed to get a little moist a few times. I wished I could jump through the screen and take their daughter away from both of them. I wished it could have been me in that bed with Basinger. Isn't that kind of involvement the essence of effective filmmaking?
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