A failed novelist but a popular writer and illustrator of children's books, The Door In The Floor's Jeff Bridges lives exactly as he pleases. Wearing loose clothing, sporting unkempt hair, drinking at all hours, and exploding in rage at anyone who dares interfere with his diversions, he blazes a path on his beachfront Long Island property from the office to the main house to a homemade squash court. When he decides to start a trial separation from his wife (Kim Basinger), it happens, and when he decides to bring in a prep-school student (Jon Foster) to work as his assistant and observe his process, that happens, too. Not content to confine his power to the page, Bridges wants to be the author of his own life. He's like some tragic distant cousin of his leisure-loving Big Lebowski character The Dude, seeking freedom out of fear instead of as an end unto itself.
It takes only one shot of his daughter (Elle Fanning, a spookily expressive young actress like her sister Dakota) staring at photos of her dead brothers to explain why. And it takes only one shot of Bridges typing in the middle of the night—nude, with a glass of whiskey nearby—to suggest that Foster's apprenticeship will fail. When Bridges does get around to providing some writing advice, his instructions about choosing the right detail are vague but useful. The Door In The Floor writer-director Tod Williams has clearly taken that advice to heart: He communicates a lot using only a little, and he lets the lines his characters don't say suggest as much as the lines they do.
The only problem is that he doesn't always seem to be choosing the right details for the same movie. An adaptation of John Irving's A Widow For One Year—or the first chunk of it, anyway—The Door In The Floor has a hard time maintaining a tone. History may repeat itself as tragedy and farce, but that doesn't mean films should, and the bridge between tragic and comic that Irving builds on the page doesn't always provide enough support for the film.
Unevenness aside, there's a lot to admire in The Door In The Floor. Bridges turns in another remarkable performance, and he's well-matched by Foster. A relative newcomer to film, last seen behind a gas-station cash register in Terminator 3, the latter takes his character from exuberant innocence to compassionate cynicism over the course of a believably misguided affair with a haunted Basinger. Williams gives his actors room to work, too. He doesn't quite know how to stitch it all together, but on a scene-by-scene basis, he reveals himself as a skillful director who lets discomfort fuel the drama as his characters lurch toward a better understanding of what they control, the forces that control them, and whether there's any happiness to be found in between.