The devastating effect of the loss of a child on parents has served as the subject of some of the most wrenching films of recent years–notably Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) and Todd Fields’ “In the Bedroom” (2001). This new picture on the theme from writer-director Tod Williams doesn’t match those extraordinary efforts, but its curious combination of refined understatement and theatrical flamboyance proves oddly compelling.

“The Door in the Floor” is an adaptation of a portion of John Irving’s novel “A Widow for One Year,” and takes its title (not a particularly good one for a film, unhappily) from that of the best-seller by one of its major characters, a children’s book author/illustrator named Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges). Cole is a bear-like fellow, a boisterous oversized philanderer with a strangely withdrawn wife named Marion (Kim Basinger); they live on the Long Island coast with their young daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning). As summer begins, Ted decides to take on an assistant from his alma mater Exeter Academy, young Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster). By the time Eddie, a quiet, reserved preppy type, arrives on the scene, ready to become an acolyte, Ted and Marion have entered on a trial separation, and Eddie is caught between the husband’s gruff gregariousness and the wife’s near-comatose reticence as he shuttles from their house, where Ted remains, and her nearby apartment while they time with their daughter. The work Ted gives to Eddie to perform proves absurdly slight–changing a word or two back and forth in a one-page draft of his next book’s beginning paragraph–which gives the boy, who fails to strike up a relationship with young nanny Alice (Bijou Phillips), plenty of free time to fantasize about, and eventually to enter, a “Graduate”-style relationship with Marion, whose maternal instinct as well as sexual desire he arouses. Eventually the reason behind the couple’s tortured relationship is revealed–it involves the loss of their two golden-boy sons in an auto accident years before, and Marion’s profound grief over the tragedy–and Ted not only finds out about his wife’s infidelity with Eddie, but runs into quasi-slapstick difficulty with his most recent mistress, Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), whom he claims to be using as a nude model for the illustrations in his projected book. Despite his anger, though, there’s a suggestion that his employment of the young man might have had an ulterior motive, one directly related to his marriage and his plans for his wife and child; and Eddie comes to realize that he’s served as a pawn in a complicated marital tussle as the summer, and his job, end.

Irving’s novel is basically about young Ruth, and though the girl still plays a significant part in the film, acting as the figure who ties the three major characters together in a whole variety of ways, especially in her idolatrous attitude toward the gallery of photos of her dead brothers that fills the house (and Fanning is quite charming, much less affected than her elder sister Dakota), it’s Ted who takes center stage here. That’s partially because he’s written as the richest, most textured of the three adults, but especially because Bridges plays him with such genial ferocity. It’s a big, fearless performance (Bridges is certainly unafraid to show some skin), and his highly histrionic turn, which consists of melodrama and farce in approximately equal measure, is–if not entirely convincing–endlessly fascinating and great fun to watch. By contrast Basinger plays Marion as a virtual catatonic who can barely rouse herself even for her encounters–some of them fairly explicit, we should note–with Eddie. She communicates the woman’s sad resignation well enough, but as a performance it wilts in the face of Bridges’ towering depiction of a reckless rogue. Eddie, meanwhile, shares Marion’s recessive nature, and though Foster actually captures his maturation with considerable subtlety–he’s a much stronger figure in his last scenes with Bridges than he was early on, though not in an obvious or triumphant way–he serves more as the audience surrogate, the reactive figure from whose perspective we witness the Cole family dynamic, than as the chief character in a coming-of-age story. This imbalance among the lead trio is a weakness of the film, but it isn’t fatal because Bridges’ rich, rambunctious performance carries the picture over the narrative bumps, even through one of those competitive squash matches that have become a dramatic cliche. The film looks fine, as well. Terry Stacey’s elegantly simple widescreen photography uses the Hamptons setting to good advantage, and Marcelo Zarvos’ melancholy score is quietly supportive.

We hear the text of Cole’s book in “The Door in the Floor,” during a reading by its supposed author; the tale ( with macabre illustrations attached) has an insinuating but cheeky tone, not unlike the one Williams aims for in the film. It also carries a monitory message for parents and children about the dangers that lurk in unexpected places that reflects, not so obliquely, the core emotional issue of the film. That connection is but one of the ways in which Williams’ picture, while departing from the breadth and scope of Irving’s novel, remains at heart a very literary piece, true in that respect to the style and spirit of the original. It may prove too much so, if fact, to attract a large audience–which means that a lot of people would miss Bridges’ extraordinary performance. That would be a real shame.