Growing Up Fast In Havoc-Filled Hamptons

There is more to summer in the Hamptons than sipping cosmopolitans, hiring the right caterer to serve down-home meat loaf and mashed potatoes in order to look pretentiously unpretentious, spending the equivalent of the annual charity proceeds of UNICEF on basil, and gossiping about Martha Stewart. Sometimes there is real life, with all of the joy, depression, sex and tragedy that goes with it. The Door in the Floor , adapted from the 1998 John Irving novel A Widow for One Year by writer-director Tod Williams, is a deceptively simple-looking but fascinatingly complex film about the coming-of-age of a bright but virginal young student from Exeter who eagerly accepts a summer job arranged by his influential father to work as an apprentice to a famous author of children’s books in posh East Hampton. For an aspiring writer like Eddie (Jon Foster), the position as personal assistant to a great literary light like Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) is a dream come true. Mr. Cole has advanced the world of children’s literature into the direction of A.A. Milne with a series of highly acclaimed books, the most famous of which is something called The Door in the Floor . Eddie will serve and observe, doing whatever his boss demands, and get a private course in the struggling writer’s master class of learning the ropes. By the end of the summer, his innocence is gone, and all he’s learned is how to write a first-hand thesis on cynicism, adultery, promiscuity and self-destruction.

From the morning he arrives at the idyllic Cole beach house, Eddie is greeted by human despair masquerading as unconventional behavior. Ted Cole walks around the house stark naked while clutching his 4-year-daughter Ruth, who exclaims, “Your penis looks funny.” To which Daddy replies, “My penis is funny.” Busy, too, since Cole is also an illustrator who beds a battalion of nude and neurotic Hamptonites modeling for his sketches. His infidelities only add to the terminal manic-depression of his beautiful wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), who is still grieving over the deaths of their two sons in a flaming automobile crash. Instead of editing manuscripts and meeting publishing icons, Eddie’s job consists mainly of sharpening pencils, chauffeuring Marion and the baby all over the Hamptons, nursing hangovers, providing alibis when Cole stays out all night and indulging his boss’ inexplicable eccentricities, like freezing squid ink in ice-cube trays.

Meanwhile, he develops a crush on the sad, wasted Marion, who responds with her own aroused sexual curiosity when she catches Eddie masturbating with her bra. Because this is the summer the Coles have agreed to a trial separation that keeps them apart, Eddie finds himself alone in the house at night, sleeping with the emotionally wasted wife and baby-sitting her deeply troubled little daughter. At the same time, he’s forced to play the multiple roles of pacifier, whipping boy, therapist, stud, surrogate daddy, sounding board and messenger between Cole and the crazy nude model (Mimi Rogers) who tries to kill him. It’s not the job he planned, it’s not the education he wanted, but before the first autumn leaf falls, Eddie has been plunged into the ice-water bath of adult psychodrama, like the kid in Tadpole , and forced to become a man before his time. You grow up fast in the Hamptons.

Except for The Cider House Rules , John Irving’s quirky books do not translate to the screen with the kind of popular appeal that generates box-office buzz, although I must admit I have personally liked them all-even the bizarro flop The Hotel New Hampshire . On paper, Mr. Irving delves beneath the façades of the most eccentric nonconformists, revealing true feelings and foibles. The character played by Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor expresses what all of John Irving’s offbeat characters represent, that everything in fiction-pain, lust, happiness, betrayal, love, death-is a tool to be explored in words, like the colors in a painter’s palate. This can be troublesome when so many characters seem delightfully odd but illogical and basically unsympathetic. Watching good actors leap over the hurdles before they wear out their welcomes is a good reason to give this offbeat movie a chance.

Marion seems like both a neglectful mother and a slut, but the way Kim Basinger plays the role, you also see the ripeness gone stale, the fertility gone fallow. When she comes alive after seducing her summer house guest, it is clear that he has awakened not only her dormant sexuality but her maternal instincts, too. And still she remains incapable of redemption, immune to real happiness, leaving everyone devastated in what could hardly be called a neat third act. Jeff Bridges is another revelation: He has developed into a marvelously relaxed curiosity, like a relative you talk about but don’t want to show up at the Thanksgiving table. You never know exactly what he will do next, or how he’ll do it. Like some of the great character actors of the past, he doesn’t much serve the script. It serves him. Beyond the crude, irascible selfishness of Ted Cole, Mr. Bridges cleverly draws you in until you not only laugh and care about him, but you genuinely cannot bear it when he’s off the screen for any prolonged period of time. He shows you that beneath the surface of a big, obnoxious creep, there is something deep going on. Not one enigmatic person in The Door in the Floor asks to be liked, but you like them anyway.

Tasteful Tearjerker

At the movies, a cascade of tears can sometimes be as restorative as an herbal massage. A nickel pack of Kleenex is not enough to get you through The Notebook . Romantic as a Valentine’s Day betrothal or a blue vase full of yellow roses, it tells two simultaneous stories that are really the same one, both equally mesmerizing. In an elegant rest home, a talky and warmly dedicated old-timer named Duke (James Garner) reads a love story from the pages of a yellowed notebook to a fragile, aged but still-beautiful patient with Alzheimer’s named Allie (Gena Rowlands). The story he reads in daily installments, which takes place in the pastoral but socially and economically prejudiced North Carolina of the 1940’s, is about two youngsters in love-Noah (Ryan Gosling), a dirt-poor Southern country boy who works in a lumberyard, and Allie (Rachel McAdams), a wealthy city girl from Charleston money whose snobby mother (Joan Allen) puts a cruel stop to the romance. If you don’t know that the old folks facing death and the lovesick kids on the threshold of a brave new world six decades earlier are the same couple, then you haven’t seen as many movies as I have. Not to worry: The Notebook unfolds with the sweet, loping rhythm of an old-fashioned hay ride. As it shifts back and forth from the star-crossed lovers in a simpler, more gracious time to the courageous couple with the liver spots in today’s frazzled society, the film transcends obvious (and unapologetic) sentimentality in a series of small, exquisitely detailed scenes of intimacy that make you feel you are getting to know these people. When the summer of 1940 ends, the girl is shipped north to Sarah Lawrence while the boy buries his father (Sam Shepard), writes letters to his girl every day, and devotes his life to transforming his family’s old rundown shack into a dream plantation that he hopes will someday lure Allie back to his arms and the house of her dreams. What neither of them knows, of course, is that the girl’s implacable mother destroys all of his letters, separating the lovers by more than miles. He becomes an architect, she heads for the altar with a handsome war hero with old Southern money, and seven years later a twist of fate brings Noah and Allie together again to prove that there is still such a thing as a love that never dies. This is where your eyes are going to look like you accidentally reached for Murine and grabbed the Tabasco by mistake.

I cannot tell you what wonders director Nick Cassavetes does with the actors, especially his own mother. Gena Rowlands specializes in acting magic, but when son Nick guides her through a scene, the result is, like their memorable previous mother-son collaboration in Unhook the Stars , a case of pure rapture. Joan Allen has the film’s least lovable role, but manages astoundingly to show the humanity that throbs beneath the wings of an iron butterfly. And the young protagonists give the most impeccable performances delivered by two actors under 30 that I have seen in years. Ryan Gosling, in a refreshing change of pace from his usual dour intensity, actually shows humor, sweetness and charm, while Rachel McAdams is a star on the rise in the best heart-stopping, old-timey, gotta-love-her silver-screen tradition. But aside from all that, Mr. Cassavetes’ direction of The Notebook , inspired by the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks and fueled by the sensitive, no-frills honesty of Jeremy Leven’s fine screenplay, honors the values of style, structure, plot, trajectory and character development in narrative filmmaking that have all but disappeared from today’s movie jabberwocky. How rare to see a film that says there is still a value system out there, that being thoughtful and caring is not uncool. The love in The Notebook defies the odds, and so does the movie.

Eye on the Tiger

Mistreated for centuries, hunted ruthlessly and driven to near extinction, tigers have always been perplexing and ethereal. They command and hold attention by their sheer beauty and power, even in cages. Now Jean-Jacques Annaud, the acclaimed director of The Bear , has made an engrossing film that humanizes the magnificent but predatory and wisely feared tiger as a cinematic heartthrob. Two Brothers is a saga about twin tiger cubs that will enchant children so much they will beg for one as a pet-a temptation best resisted in the interests of both sanity and safety.

Two Brothers follows the adventures of Kumal and Sangha, two cubs who are born in the ruins of an ancient temple in Southeast Asia and separated when one of their parents is killed and the other driven into the jungle by hunters. Kumal, the brave, fierce and mischievous one, is adopted by the local son of a local bureaucrat, but when he attacks the nasty family dog in self-defense and wrecks the dining-room china, he is sold to people who beat and abuse him, breaking his spirit. Sangha, the shy and gentle one, bonds with a white hunter and develops a fondness for gumdrops and bottled sugar water. But the hunter (Guy Pearce) is jailed for stealing artifacts from the abandoned temples to sell in the auction houses of London, and poor little Sangha is again alienated from love and security. One cub ends up in a circus, the other falls into the hands of a savage showman who turns him into a fighter for sport.

Time passes. Both cubs grow into gorgeous specimens of ferocious animal royalty. But their loving and independent natures are compromised by human cruelty and their lives behind bars. Then a trick of fate reunites them when they are pitted against each other in a public arena and forced to fight each other to the death. But they don’t want to eat women, children or each other. They just want to play football. Freed again by the little boy and the hunter, they flee to the wild outdoors, but since neither has ever learned to hunt, how will they stay alive in the jungle? As the tribes and soldiers close in with their torches and their gasoline, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

This is a family movie on a grand scale, enhanced by lush cinematography and throbbing music, with a minimum of dialogue and an endless assortment of thrills. One tiger hunt on the backs of elephants is especially exciting. But the tigers are the stars who steal the show. Mr. Annaud details the human qualities with which tigers mate for life, enjoy family outings, risk their lives to protect their offspring and never give up the search when they are separated, even if the vigil takes years. Apparently, tigers also have the same indelible memories as pachyderms. At the point where the child and the hunter, vulnerable and ready to be attacked, are recognized by Kumal and Sangha, the love fest that follows is unabashedly heart-tugging. It’s the goddamnedest thing since Lassie survived the war and found his way home to the doll-baby arms of Elizabeth Taylor.

In a summer of rehashed noise, violence and cinematic misery, Two Brothers is a healthy change of pace and mood- Born Free meets Animal Planet . The movie suggests that tigers do indeed make the kind of loyal and lovable friends it might be nice to have around in New York City-but the adoption risks are so great that I think you’re better off with the stuffed variety from F.A.O. Schwarz.