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Death in the Family
By Laura Leon

The Door in the Floor
Directed by Tod Williams

In telling my husband about The Door in the Floor, I mistakenly attributed its origin to a book by Andre Dubus. (It is, in fact, from John Irving’s A Widow for One Year.) It’s an easy mistake to make, as Door bears more than a passing resemblance to Dubus’ In the Bedroom. Both explore different people’s reactions to loss, and the disparate ways in which they heal and move on, or, in the case of Marian Cole (Kim Basinger), do not. In the aftermath of the death of her beloved teen sons Thomas and Timothy, Marian has become a shell, a complete zombie reclining on a chaise lounge, oblivious to encroaching darkness or cold. Her husband Ted (Jeff Bridges), a successful children’s book author and illustrator, patiently attends to their 4-year-old daughter Ruthie (Elle Fanning) and, in his spare moments, seduces wealthy Hamptonians.

At the point that Phillips Exeter student and wannabe writer Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster) enters the Coles’ universe, where he has been hired to “assist,” Ted and Marion have reached a highly delicate moment, a time when stony silence replaces conversation: They know that words will bring about the inevitable split-up of the family. While shy, Eddie quickly surmises his real purpose, which is to guide Marian back to the living. It’s a job he enjoys, as he was immediately smitten with Mrs. Cole. For her part, Marian responds in a way that, while it cannot be described as hot-blooded, is kind and knowing. Throughout her early conversations with Eddie, she reminds him that “I know about boys your age,” as if holding onto to this one fact of having had an understanding of such children—her own. That said, these statements make her subsequent trysts with Eddie weirdly disturbing. Is Marian trying to ease the passage into the way of all flesh, in matters that her own sons were probably unaware of? Is she at all remembering her tenderness with Thomas and Timothy when she holds Eddie against her chest?

Unfortunately, screenwriter-director Tod Williams films these scenes with no sense of urgency or strong feeling, although they are often humorous. In fact, much of The Door in the Floor is bereft of anything emotionally meaty or bloodcurdling, making the remembrance of Thomas’ and Timothy’s accident, much later in the film, a welcome kick in the ass. While understanding the intensity of emotions that accompany such a loss, Williams holds things steady at an emotional remove that rivals Marian’s for icy reserve. It doesn’t help that we never really get a sense of what Marian was like before the accident, except from one old photograph that shows her smiling warmly, and from Ted’s telling Eddie that she had been a “fabulous” mother.

Still, there is something compelling about this movie, something dangerous, like an undertow, that keeps sucking us in—and that is Jeff Bridges’ performance. Long underappreciated as an actor—probably because he doesn’t talk about his job like it’s Art and doesn’t make us watch him strain at a characterization—Bridges owns nearly every frame of the movie. Even when he’s not on screen, his presence is felt. His Ted is a talent who understands the fickleness of fame. He pursues other women with gusto, until, tiring of them, he begins to paint them in their raw ugliness. He strides around the house naked, oblivious to who might see, and when Ruthie tells him that his penis looks funny, he says, without missing a beat, “My penis is funny.” He may look like Moses with his flowing robe, but Ted is no wise sage, nor is he the typical tortured artist, going through wine and women in a desperate act to avoid reality.

One senses that the reason Marion contemplates leaving Ted isn’t because of his many infidelities, but because he’s been able to get past his grief, to live fully and still be able to talk openly about Thomas and Timothy. (He regales Ruthie with stories of the two, whereas the mere mention of “the accident” sends Marion into catatonia.) As with In the Bedroom, this is the most compelling dynamic in the movie, and it’s one that almost, almost makes The Door in the Floor as artful as its lead performance.


Strange attraction: (l-r) Judd and Kline in De-Lovely.

Just One of Those Things

De-Lovely
Directed by Irwin Winkler

Depending on the source, the great American composer-lyricist Cole Porter either loved Night and Day, the 1946 film of his life, or he hated it. If he loved it, it’s because the big-budget Technicolor extravaganza was packed, wall-to-wall, with his songs; and, he was played by Cary Grant. (Who wouldn’t love to have had Grant star in his life story?) If he hated it, it was because it was melodramatic fiction.

One can’t help but think that he would either love or hate De-Lovely, the new Porter biopic, for many of the same reasons.

As the film begins, Porter (Kevin Kline) is dying in his New York apartment, in the shadow of a gleaming skyscraper. Gabe (Jonathan Pryce) arrives out of the ether to transport Porter to the other side—stopping, however, in a theater to stage a musical review of the composer’s life. Linda (Ashley Judd), Porter’s late wife, is introduced, along with the rest of the “cast.” The show begins.

There is comedy. There is romance. Cole and Linda truly love each other, in their fashion: He’s gay and she’s understanding. There is quite a lot of music. And, mostly, it’s all very charming.

The fact that De-Lovely occasionally rises to the level of compelling is due to Kline, and, to a lesser extent, Judd. Kline is as debonair and insouciant as any Porter lyric, with just the right undercurrent of melancholy in his performance. Over and over, Porter expressed in song his bewilderment at, and respect for, the mysterious nature of love; Kline brings these feelings to life. Judd has the thankless role of unhappy spouse, but she never overplays the misery. Both actors display the beguiling sophistication of the long-gone 20th-century American aristocracy. (Both Porters were ridiculously wealthy from birth.)

What keeps De-Lovely from being what it could have been is a reliance on melodrama that can be squarely blamed on screenwriter Jay Cocks and director Irwin Winkler. The setup, having Porter look back on his life at the point of death, was old news by the time talking pictures came in. Winkler, a producer-turned-director who betrays his inexperience at awkward moments, can be forgiven for overreaching; Cocks should know better.

The songs are presented in colorful, impressive production numbers. Mostly, they’re sung by contemporary Broadway performers. This is perfectly fine if you like that kind of singing. Every note, every word is enthusiastically e-nunc-i-at-ed—essentially, nailed down as if to make sure the rhythm doesn’t do anything “funny.” Unfortunately, the effect is as if jazz never happened.

Of the non-Broadway performances, the results are mixed. The best are Natalie Cole’s moving “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” Elvis Costello’s sly “Let’s Misbehave,” Vivian Green’s sleek “Love for Sale,” and—believe it or not—Alanis Morissette’s sexy “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love.” On the other hand, Diana Krall is misused in a throwaway scene, and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall is abused as a Nelson Eddy-type tenor. And if there’s any cosmic justice, Sheryl Crow is going to pay in the next three lifetimes for what she does to “Begin the Beguine.”

There’s so much wrong with De-Lovely, it’s hard to recommend it. And yet, what’s right about it is so good, it’s just as difficult to dismiss.

—Shawn Stone

Killing Me Softly

Collateral
Directed by Michael Mann

In Michael Mann’s intelligent but talky new thriller, a top-level hit man and a gentle cabbie go mano a mano—philosophically. Set in Los Angeles and shot with a dank, primeval sheen, the film has some thought-provoking angles behind its methodical carnage. And though some of them are dulled by drawn-out verbiage, Collateral still provides a better-than-average ride through a dark night of the soul.

That soul belongs to Max (Jamie Foxx), a career cab driver who dreams of starting up a luxury limousine service. We get to know this timid optimist during the long opening sequence, during which Max makes conversation—and a genuine connection—with Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a prosecutor he squires to the airport. Elated by the encounter, Max barely notices his next client, a businessman with a sophisticated laptop. After paying Max big bucks to be driven to several stops, Vincent (Tom Cruise) breaks through the cabby’s reserve with some hard-hitting existential commentary and savvy questioning. Turns out, rather smartly, too, that Vincent is in need of a getaway driver so he can snuff out a half-dozen drug-cartel turncoats. Unthreatening yet experienced (12 years behind the wheel), Max is the ideal choice, and Collateral is often most ingenious in the wiliness with which Victor pressures Max into collaborating on his tightly scheduled killing spree (the “collateral” of the title is innocent bystanders).

Mann, the famous stylist (and sometimes, the great director, as with The Insider) goes a little overboard with his moody, down-tuned scenarios, yet the executions have a visceral believability, as do Max’s edge-of-trauma reactions. In one of the most sinister (and blackly comic) scenes, Max calls out for help from some pedestrians who respond by mugging him at gunpoint. They also make the mistake of stealing Victor’s laptop, which allows Mann to create some sympathy for him—in the urban jungle, it can be amazingly helpful to have a cold-blooded killer around. Since Victor is also a sociopath who likes to get into the heads of his victims and toy with them, a bizarre relationship develops between him and Max, whose unshakable decency (Foxx conveys this with utter naturalism) seems to intrigue and annoy the control-freak hit man. Distilled, the interplay is also a comparison and contrast between a ruthless, intensely focused careerist like Victor and the dreamy Max, whose lack of confidence holds him back from realizing his limo-business plan.

The dialogue (by Stuart Beattie), a major force in the film, starts out strong—Victor notes the general apathy regarding the slaughter of thousands of Rwandans when Max gets upset about the killing of a snitch—and gradually runs out of steam, to be replaced with sub-Scorsese repartee. Victor’s rejoinders may be wickedly funny (Beattie was the screenwriter on Pirates of the Caribbean) but they tend to disrupt Mann’s aura of unpredictable menace. The production is similarly hit-or-miss; the soundtrack is occasionally inspired, but more often obtrusive, and the plot eventually falls back on standard crime-drama devices such as characters who talk when they should be fleeing or shooting.

What shouldn’t be a surprise is how convincing Cruise is; after all, some of his best performances have been as villains (Lestat the vampire, the slimy misogynist in Magnolia). Although his Victor isn’t quite up to those turns—it sometimes seems as if he’s channeling Richard Gere, especially with his slick verbal gambits and fake gray hair—Cruise is chillingly effective with Victor’s relentless sense of entitlement. And with that, Collateral strikes a chord that goes beyond its thriller intentions.

—Ann Morrow


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