Irving’s Oversexed Protagonists Underachieve on Screen

Tod William’s The Door in the Floor , from his own screenplay and based on John Irving’s novel A Widow for One Year , has been hailed by some as the best screen adaptation to date of an Irving novel, and dismissed by others as a dismal failure. I can’t say I minded the movie too much, but I can’t say it ever grabbed me, which is how I feel about every other movie adapted from an Irving novel. I can sense the effort and ambition that went into the film, as well as its strained seriousness and calculated bawdiness. But I’ve read enough of Mr. Irving’s prose to suspect that comparisons with such eminent 19th-century novelists as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Honoré de Balzac represent a considerable inflation of his undeniable talents as a popular storyteller.

Mr. Williams’ screenplay adaptation only tackles the first third of the novel, thereby omitting four decades of character aging, development and disintegration, but should he be condemned for this? There is no law that says films are compelled to observe the Aristotelian unities once prescribed for plays, but the suspension of disbelief required for either old-age makeup or younger and older actors to play the same character are usually too wearisome to contemplate.

The problem is that a disastrous traffic accident on a snowy road becomes the decisive dramatic revelation of an otherwise despairingly morose confluence of incidents involving three terminally depressed and oversexed co-protagonists. Yes, oversexed. Considering my lifelong crusade against puritanical censorship in the movies, I’m almost ashamed to admit that even I was a little shocked to hear a 4-year-old girl named Ruth Cole (Elle Fanning) telling her father Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) that his penis “looks funny” as he escorts her back to her bedroom after she has had a nightmare. All right, it’s in the book, and many parents at one time or another let their children see them in the nude from an early age. But onscreen, this bit of cultural commentary on bohemian bravado becomes too sensational for its limited context.

I was less shocked than puzzled by the fact that Ted Cole was a successful writer and illustrator of children’s books, and yet used nude female models in his work, and went so far as to degrade and humiliate them for his own amusement. But even more embarrassing were the lurid scenes of Ted’s 16-year-old summer assistant, Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), caught masturbating-while caressing the underwear of Ted’s wife, Marion (Kim Basinger)-by Marion herself! Long before I was Ted’s age, the joke circulating among my peers in Howard Beach was that only 5 percent of boys masturbated, and the other 95 percent lied about it. Here, Mr. Irving has the edge on Dickens, Hardy and Balzac in being able to describe the process on the printed page, but the visual emphasis Mr. Williams gives it onscreen is at once manipulative (literally and figuratively) and pretentious.

By the time Marion takes pity on Eddie’s shamefaced sexual frustrations and virginal inexperience by seducing him, we’re fully prepared for the now-mundane bodily displays and simulations. Since Eddie resembles her older son at the time of his death (extensively memorialized with photos hung on the walls of the Cole house), her liaison with Eddie takes on a distinctly incestuous flavor.

When 4-year-old Ruth walks in on Eddie’s nude body humping Marion’s nude body from behind, the child emits a curiously mechanical, seemingly prerehearsed scream. “Don’t cry, honey,” Marion reassures her, “it’s only Eddie and me.” This is also the moving last line of Mr. Irving’s full-length novel; it’s a narrative payoff denied the abridged adaptation by Mr. Williams.

Indeed, the grown-up Ruth is eventually the central character in Mr. Irving’s story, and this is not the only advantage the author has over the director. In the book, Ruth screams with a special frenzy because she mistakenly assumes not only that her mother is being attacked, but also that the assailant is her dead brother, who’s come back to life in a frightening fashion. Hence, a series of sensational episodes that were designed to resonate throughout a long novel have become the inadequately developed substance of a heavily atmospheric anecdote. Mr. Bridges, long overdue for an Oscar, is as good as everyone says he is, as is Mr. Foster. As for Ms. Basinger, I liked her more than did most of my esteemed colleagues.

‘You’re Fired!’

Per Fly’s The Inheritance , in Danish and Swedish with English subtitles, is the director’s second film in a planned trilogy that depicts the class divisions of contemporary Danish society. Each film is a self-contained story, with the first installment, The Bench , dealing with the working class; shooting on the third installment is set to begin in August. Increasingly in Europe, and more recently in America, the rigid, gated divisions of class have made the heartwarming rags-to-riches success stories of the past comparatively rare.

For its part, The Inheritance could fit very comfortably on a double bill with the nonfiction film The Corporation , inasmuch as it traces the difficult and soul-destroying choices that have to be made to transform a failing family business into a potentially monopolistic multinational corporation. As Mr. Fly describes it in his film notes, The Inheritance is a contemplation of capitalism, a film “about power and the price you pay for it and the responsibility that comes with it. It’s about the choices we make that impact our lives, about will vs. passion, and duty vs. freedom, about deciding between what you want to do and what you have to do.” As part of his research for the film, Mr. Fly talked to several men who had fired over 2,000 employees in a single day. “One of them had no scruples and said he’d go ahead and do it again tomorrow, because like he said: ‘If I hadn’t fired them, the whole company would have collapsed.'” Another boss that the director spoke with never got over his actions and subsequently suffered an emotional breakdown.

In The Inheritance , the reciprocal process of firing another and being fired is seen as the profoundly traumatic event it is for the victim’s psyche-and not just Donald Trump’s flick-of-the-cuff catch phrase seen on his reality-TV ego-slaughterhouse, The Apprentice . In any event, one cannot imagine a mainstream American filmmaker even thinking of exploring such a painful subject. American movie heroes are not supposed to suggest that there exists anyone in the universe who has the power to deprive the hero of his livelihood, and certainly no American movie hero is allowed to do anything that will make someone else feel bad. In fact, John Travolta suffered an early career setback with James Bridges’ Urban Cowboy (1980), when he silently took some guff from his boss without slugging him; he wanted to hold onto his job, like most people in real life. But Mr. Travolta’s fans were very disappointed in their idol’s lack of gumption.

In The Inheritance , Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen), heir to a vast industrial fortune in Denmark, has abandoned the family business to live in Stockholm with his beautiful Swedish stage-actress wife, Maria (Lisa Werlinder). He is happy with Maria and his newfound career as a thriving restaurateur. One night, he receives a telephone call telling him that his father has hung himself, and he must return to his family immediately. There he’s confronted again by his strong-willed mother, Annelise (Ghita Nørby), who’s always opposed her son leaving the business-his brother-in-law, Ulrik (Lars Brygmann), who is married to Christoffer’s sister, Benedikte (Karina Skands), has been running the show in his absence.

With his mother pressuring Christoffer to remain in Denmark to run the business and his wife beseeching him to return to Stockholm with her, he tries to achieve a compromise by agreeing to stay in Denmark for two years to put the ailing company back on its feet. Maria grudgingly agrees to the arrangement at first, but her career is in Stockholm, and the marriage is eventually doomed by the toll the business takes on Christoffer’s once-easygoing temperament. He’s temporarily estranged from his sister for having to fire her husband for proven disloyalty. He also has to fire many of the workers he has known since childhood.

When the bottom line picks up, he tries to make amends by rehiring many of the people he axed, including his brother-in-law, which brings peace once more with his sister. But the damage to his soul and his marriage proves permanent. And the necessary betrayals to keep a corporation solvent never end. He reaches rock bottom when he tries to rape a resisting cleaning woman in a drunken rage. Curiously, this movie-considered too downbeat by the local critics (even for an art film)-was a huge box-office hit in Denmark.

Orwellian Analysis

Robert Kane Pappas’ Orwell Rolls in His Grave fills in some of the dots missing from Fahrenheit 9/11 ‘s indictment of the Bush administration. And Michael Moore himself is one of the more vociferous talking heads assembled to assail the media for their sins of omission and commission, dating back to Ronald Reagan’s October Surprise on President Jimmy Carter-involving Reagan’s alleged secret deal with Iran’s ayatollahs delaying the release of the American hostages until after the November election. The press fell asleep on that one even though the first George Bush was allegedly seen in Paris under suspicious circumstances. Amid the Gipper’s recent funeral hoopla, no one in the press seemed even mildly concerned about Reagan’s penchant for arms deals with foreign rogue states.

Still, the frequent references to Orwell’s 1984 seems to ignore the fact that the book was written at a time when the writer was more obsessed with the lies of the Stalinist left than the lies of the vanquished Nazis and the fascist right. Even Orwell’s wondrously generous Homage to Catalonia castigated Soviet-worshipping leftists who subverted the struggle of the masses against Franco and his religious allies. Indeed, nothing resembles the current culture wars in America as much as the bitter struggle of the Spanish Republic and its followers against the Falangist forces and their priestly allies. Among the things I didn’t know until I saw this film: that Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was heard cursing in public when Al Gore’s victory was erroneously reported on television; that The New York Times suppressed a pro-Gore report by an election commission because Jeb Bush declared there was nothing to the allegations; that conflicts of interest abounded on the Supreme Court even in 2000.

The war against the neo-fascists still goes on, and the outcome at this point is far from certain. Mr. Pappas’ film does its part.