Jeff Bridges has been a movie star for so long; you have to wonder if he's got a portrait of himself hidden away in an attic somewhere. No, that's not quite it, he does look middle-aged in his latest film, The Door in the Floor, an adaptation of John Irving's novel A Widow for a Year.
But this perpetual golden boy, a sun-kissed blond who first made an impression in The Last Picture Show way back in 1971, he seems to have held on to a youthful spirit. He's a drop-out who has miraculously remained a Hollywood insider for three decades now. Looking back over a remarkably eclectic career, he seems to drift where his fancy takes him, doing his own thing, doodling in the margins almost as if he didn't have a care in the world. Perhaps he doesn't.
In The Door in the Floor he's Ted Cole, a writer of children's stories, improbably famous and respected for that genre (his stature seems more akin to John Irving's, but let that go). Ted's marriage is falling apart in the face of his constant womanising and the grieving for two sons, killed in an accident recounted in horrifyingly literary style at the film's climax.
Tod Williams, who scripted and directed, has jettisoned the last two-thirds of the book (unless he's planning a trilogy on the sly) and chooses to reflect events through the eyes of an aspiring young writer who comes to work for Cole on the Hamptons during the summer, and who ends up sleeping with the writer's shell-shocked wife (Kim Basinger).
This coming-of-age first-sex angle seriously skews the film's perspective, and comes off as vaguely porny. Williams hasn't made a feature before, and the typical Irving sucker combination of ponderous gravity and risqué comedy defeats him just as it defeated Tony Richardson in Hotel New Hampshire and George Roy Hill in The World According to Garp. (A confession, these dreadful movie adaptations have always deterred me from reading the novels. And I won't be attempting this one either.) When the movie pitches into black comic farce in the home straight scenes of Bridges being chased by a knife-wielding housewife it perks right up, but it also pretty much falls apart before our eyes.
Yet even here, against all odds, Bridges near-as-dammit holds the movie together. Somehow, with nowhere near enough screen time, he becomes the film's centre of gravity: this monstrous man, an ego unleashed, is a burden you find yourself wanting to shoulder. There's no doubt that casting Bridges was Williams' smartest move: he's such an attractive, deft actor, he finds the pathos and the absurdity in the character's bohemian narcissism.
There was a period in the 1980s when Bridges toyed with a conventional career, propelled to the brink of superstardom with a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Starman and the blockbuster Jagged Edge. But that didn't quite happen. His conventional movies didn't hit paydirt again, and anyway, Bridges would keep getting distracted, going off to investigate such curiosities as The Fisher King, Wild Bill, Arlington Road, and, triumphantly, The Big Lebowski. All these movies have their fans, but the real fanatics go for Lebowski, the Coens' cockeyed tribute to Raymond Chandler, and by any measure the definitive Bridges' flick so much so, it's hard to remember that the actor must have so many more smarts than The Dude. It takes absolute clarity to delineate that level of befuddlement.
A photographer of considerable repute, a musician and a painter (he did Ted Cole's children's illustrations for The Door in the Floor) Bridges is a free spirit and a dabbler, as his engagingly idiosyncratic website shows (jeffbridges.com). But as an actor he's unerringly precise. Directors report he doesn't give myriad variations on extra takes; he hones and refines his portrait, getting it down to the subtlest, most economical strokes. This is no movie star. He's an artist.