Jeff Bridges has always been the most soulful beach boy in American movies. An alluring intelligence underlies his floppy-haired nonchalance, yet what has made him a singular actor is the look of faraway hope in his eyes -- the sense that he's dreaming of something just around the corner from the present. In The Door in the Floor, Bridges plays Ted Cole, a famous author-illustrator of children's books who lives in the tony beach village of East Hampton, N.Y. At 54, Bridges, with a salt-and-pepper beard, knows how to embody a randy, hard-drinking local literary star so that you see the slightly debauched arrogance of his charm yet like him a lot anyway.
Early on, Ted informs his wife, the beautiful but saddened Marion (Kim Basinger), that he wants a trial separation, and that he's planning to hire an assistant for the summer. He implies that the two actions are linked, and when the assistant, Eddie (Jon Foster), all virginal gawks and stammers, shows up and starts to sleep with Marion, it's not quite the clandestine tryst it appears to be. There's every indication that Ted, in effect, has set the two of them up.
''The Door in the Floor'' is based on the first third of the 1998 John Irving novel ''A Widow for One Year,'' and, as adapted (and updated from the '50s) by writer- director Tod Williams, who made the Garp-ish ''The Adventures of Sebastian Cole,'' it's easily the most robust and compelling movie ever spun off from Irving's work. (True confession: I've hated all the rest of them.) Ted hasn't separated from Marion by caprice. They are both in a state of suspended mourning due to the death of their two teenage sons; that tragedy is the film's central mystery. When Ted, who has lost his driver's license because of his drinking, has Eddie chauffeur him around town, notably to the house of a socialite (Mimi Rogers) he's sketching in the nude, the farcical sex play has a desperate undercurrent -- it's Ted's denial of darkness. With its mood of summer limbo blanched by marital discord and death, ''The Door in the Floor'' held me to the end, yet it bears the fingerprints of an overly symmetrical literary design. Everything in the movie -- family demons, May-December sex, the lessons of writing -- ties together with pinpoint precision. That's a pleasure, to be sure, and a limitation, too.