How can you not marvel at Jeff Bridges? Perhaps the more accurate question is, why doesn't this man have an Oscar by now?
Actually, the answer is quite simple. It's the exact same reason why director Tod Williams' sophomore effort, The Door in the Floor, is such a marvel at times. (Note the caveat, "at times," but more on that later.) Unlike the great actors of Bridges' generation, everyone from Jack Nicholson to Robert De Niro to Al Pacino, Bridges has almost never had that Oscar Moment. For Nicholson, it's almost every other scene in every movie; for De Niro, it's in transformative monologues like his puffed-up Jake La Motta mumbling into a mirror in Raging Bull; for Pacino, the squawking at the end of (grrrr) Scent of a Woman. For despite their considerable skills, especially nowadays, there's no question that these walking, living legends are Acting.
Bridges, by contrast, saunters along, unconsciously scratching his beard, looking away, half-grinning, making points without exclamation marks, looking like he's doing everything but acting. And in my book, his is the greatest act of all. And, concurrently, it is in those subtleties that Williams finds the small magic in The Door in the Floor. Williams, who previous directed the critically acclaimed The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, works on minor chords and offbeat rhythms. Rarely does his narrative snap and crackle. Like its star, the film meanders about, searching for something it may never find. Williams adapted the film from the first couple hundred pages of John Irving's A Widow for One Year. By the way, this is the second time someone has done this; Mark Steven Johnson's 1998 film, Simon Birch, was lifted from a portion of Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. Which leads one to believe Mr. Irving does love to go on a bit.
But there's none of that here, and thankfully so, for Bridges has found someone simpatico in Williams. Together, they create a world of grief that doesn't always have to be somber, of sex that doesn't always have to be hot or elegant, of middle age that doesn't always have to be wise or youth that doesn't always have to be innocent.
It's called nuance, and who better than Bridges to find it in Ted Cole, a children's book author and artist who let his marriage to Marion (Kim Basinger) run aground years after the death of their two teen sons. Superficially, they lead an idyllic life in the Hamptons, with Ted doing just about everything he pleases by day and by night, indoors or out, with whomever he chooses (but particularly other women). Ted's one of those artists who's so arrogant and self-important that he can be disingenuous about it. "I'm just an entertainer of children, who loves to draw," he tells his audiences after a reading of the book that gives the movie its name, and it's not until later that the irony of the statement sinks in. Just who is he entertaining, anyway?
At first glance, Ted's a lout, and just about everyone can see it, including the boarding-school student who's won a sort of internship with Ted for the season. Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster), like most teens, doesn't know what he's getting into in this adult world, and Ted takes full advantage, sending him on menial errands and generally leaving him enough time to do nothing. So his attention naturally turns to the frozen Marion, who is still so grief-stricken that she can barely function. But she sees something in Eddie, and soon there's a notion that this young man can bring Marion back to life. At least, that's the notion. Opening doors sometimes invites surprises. For Ted is just as half-assed an instigator as he is a philanderer, and eventually most of his actions come back on him in ways he'd never suspected (and maybe the audience, as well).
Williams resists temptation elsewhere. Ted is actually a good father to their young daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning), whom they conceived as an obvious (but insubstantial) replacement for the boys, but who also serves as an active reminder of them. (In one wrenching scene after another, she forces both parents to re-tell the story of the boys through countless pictures on walls, as we all hope to put the pieces of a puzzle together.) Elsewhere, Eddie would seem a natural match for the teen nanny, but he shows no interest. He's young and idealistic, believing his love for an older woman is truer, finer.
As the movie wanders along toward its elliptical conclusion, the mystery of the sons' death becomes less compelling, and sometimes it's hard to tell if that really matters to Williams. There is a kind of payoff scene, with Bridges offering a summary monologue. And yet, there's no bada-BING moment, so tying up of all the emotional loose strings, no flailing about. No. Like the movie itself, that's not Jeff Bridges' style.