A movie about small cowardices and braveries has no business being released in the summer silly season alongside such kiddie-pool diversions as "Anchorman" and "I, Robot." Yet, here's Tod Williams's "The Door in the Floor," a stunningly well-acted drama for grown-ups that has been extracted from the first third of a John Irving novel and that probes how tragedy can amplify one's best and worst impulses until you can no longer tell them apart.
The Irving novel is 1998's "A Widow for One Year," and by building his narrative from the prologue that takes up the book's first 183 pages, writer-director Williams unhooks his tale from the author's weakness for Dickensian coincidence. This is a good thing, and "The Door in the Floor" is the most naturalistic of Irving movie adaptations, and the best since 1982's "The World According to Garp." Although set amid the sun-kissed mansions of East Hampton, N.Y., the main event in "Door" has occurred several years beforehand: an auto accident that claimed the lives of two teenage boys, Tom and Timmy Cole. The details are revealed only late in the story, which is more concerned with the survivors: the boys' charismatic father, Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), a well-known writer of children's books; his ghostly and estranged wife, Marion (Kim Basinger); and their 4-year-old daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota), whose vague memories of her brothers have hardened into the catechism of family anecdotes she recites during her daily tour of the boys' photos in the downstairs hallway.
Into this living tomb comes Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster), a lanky and very young junior at Phillips Exeter Academy whose father has arranged for him to spend the summer assisting Ted. Ted doesn't really want assisting, but a recent drunk-driving incident means he needs Eddie's services as a chauffeur. Otherwise, the boy's duties are amorphous: preparing the squid ink with which the older man illustrates his books, becoming a surrogate father to the neglected Ruth, helping Ted in juggling his local sexual conquests, and, eventually, sleeping with Marion two or three times a day.
This last subplot acquires so many layers of kink, hurt, and meaning that it may take awhile for you to absorb them all. Marion is beyond loving Ted -- although she well understands why everyone else does -- and the presence of a tender, gauche boy the age of her dead sons offers comforts that swerve past maternal impulses and carnal desires and heads straight to her soul. The sex scenes between the two are lusty and indelibly sad, and director Williams quickly moves us out of Penthouse Letters terrain and into uncharted emotional waters.
Even with that Oscar for "LA Confidential," Kim Basinger has always seemed more of a classic-movie poster than an actress, but here she comes through with the real thing. Marion's a character who could easily be overplayed -- a mother who can't love her surviving child, a wife who won't love her husband -- but Basinger quietly embodies her and ennobles her without once letting her off the hook.
Matching her stride for stride is Bridges, in a deceptively shaggy role that's one of the most simultaneously attractive and repugnant of his long career. Ted is one of those strapping summer-colony artists people call a "force of nature," but he's mostly a user who was sexually humiliating rich wives long before the accident that took away his sons and marriage. (His most recent paramour is a certain Mrs. Vaughn, played without vanity or many clothes by a nearly unrecognizable Mimi Rogers.) In the course of "The Door in the Floor" -- the title comes from one of his darkly psychological kids' books -- Ted's great-god-Pan routine fails him, and there's surprisingly rich farce to be found in the resulting chase around the Hamptons hedgerows.
For all of Basinger's and Bridges's talents, the movie's central character is Eddie, and the initially bland Foster grows in assurance and awareness as his character does. Toward the end, Eddie must explain everything that is happening at the Cole household to a suspicious frame-shop proprietor (nicely played by Broadway star Donna Murphy); since Ruth is standing at his side, he has to do so silently. It's a terrifically conceived and played moment, and as much the actor's triumph as the character's.
Because the film has the watchful shapelessness of life on vacation, every so often the wind drops and the story floats to earth like a stalled kite. But Williams has a deft cinematic touch: A morning scene in which a rumpled Ted takes breakfast on his patio and we see, through Eddie's eyes, the trim ankle and evening sweater of Mrs. Vaughn passing quickly through the frame says everything about the older man's hollowness and the younger man's disenchantment. "Specific details, Eddie," pronounces Ted by way of writing advice, and the movie follows suit, pinning down the precise ways in which a woman might save her life by pulling it to pieces and a great man might choke on his own ink.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Door in the Floor
Directed by: Tod Williams
Written by: Williams, based on A Widow for One Year by John Irving
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster, Elle Fanning, Mimi Rogers, Donna Murphy
At: Copley Place, Kendall Square, West Newton
Running time: 111 minutes
Rated: R (sexuality and graphic images, language)