Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ordinary People (1980): A Review


All Unhappy Families Are Alike...

Ordinary People is a curious film, curious in that in many respects, it is pretty, well, ordinary.  This family drama about death and guilt and emotion is by no means a great film, but it isn't a lousy one either.  It has at least two if not three excellent performances, but apart from that what I saw was if not a Lifetime Movie Channel production at least something that the Hallmark Hall of Fame could have done with equal respectability (if not with any swearing as Ordinary People has).  Ordinary People is a film that I think has lost some of the shock it might have had in 1980 (the biggest being the sweet image of Mary Tyler Moore as a cold, brittle mother), and again, it is so ordinary, so simple, that in retrospect it begs the question, "Why?"

It also doesn't help that they are hardly 'ordinary'.

The Jarrett Family is a cold little family, but with reason.  These WASPs have endured over the course of a few years the death of their oldest son, Buck, in a boating accident, and the attempted suicide of their younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton).  As far as Conrad's parents Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and Calvin (Donald Sutherland) are concerned, things should go as normally as they can.  Beth especially is firm on her belief that things are fine, no problems, Conrad's act more an odd eccentricity that should not be discussed.  Calvin for his part wants nothing BUT emotion, to get things out in the open.  Conrad, who after Buck's death and his suicide attempt has lost pretty much the passion for living (and for the swim team that no longer brings him joy) feels condemned to move on in a zombie-like state, living but not alive.

Into Conrad's life enter two people: a fellow student, Janine (Elizabeth McGovern) to whom Conrad is attracted to, and Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsh), the psychiatrist who is the most un-psychiatric psychiatrist ever.  The Jewish Berger must seem from another world to the WASP Jarrett clan, and soon the good doctor works to get Conrad to understand that Buck's death isn't his fault.

Of course, this doesn't help Beth at all.  It's clear she favored Buck (to where one suspects that if it had been Conrad and not Buck who died, she would have been fine with that).  Beth works to show a good front over all this: Buck's death, Conrad's troubles, attempting to be the perfect family.  Calvin is caught in the middle: trying to understand his son while keeping peace with his wife.  Beth is obviously angry at the world for her favorite son's death, and for Conrad's 'weakness'.  The two of them then begin a cold war: her frigidness and wound-up persona to his deep emotional turbulence. 

Eventually, things come to a head when Conrad is finally able to let go of the guilt over Buck's death, but now Calvin confronts Beth after they return from a trip to visit family in Houston.  Calvin wonders whether Beth truly loves him, or Conrad, or anyone.  She decides she needs to leave the family she's worked so hard to present as perfect, but in the privacy of her bedroom, the façade she had cracks just a tiny bit, a tear bursting out.  She leaves Chicago, with Calvin not loving her anymore, but Father and Son tell each other they do love each other, hugging it out long before the term was used.

Again, I can't fault Ordinary People for being well-made, well-acted, and well-directed.  Robert Redford expanded his abilities to guiding three extremely strong and powerful performances.  There is something brilliantly sad about Hutton's Conrad, the young man struggling with the mix of guilt and anger.  Hutton's angry young man is also a very deep and mournful one, one who is overwhelmed not just with survivor's guilt but with the sense (not without evidence) that his own mother genuinely does not love him.  Hutton gives us Conrad's anger and fear and growing sense of hope with his relationship with Jeannine.

The real standout of the film though it Moore as Beth.  This is Laura Petrie.  This is Mary Richards.  This is the girl who can turn the world on with her smile as we've never seen her before: as the cold and mostly heartless bitch.  I say mostly because Redford, in his directing, gives us little clues that Beth in her own way is a very broken woman.  In the film Conrad comes into the Buck's room to discover Beth there, and it is clear she is not happy about her other son coming in unannounced at what is obviously her private grieving.  By the end of the film, we do get the sense that Beth truly hates her own son: for the weakness of his suicide attempt (which she is sure her other son would not have done) and perhaps with the fact that that it was Buck and not Conrad who had died.  Maybe she blames Conrad for his death and has never verbalized it.  Maybe Buck's death has killed all love within her, a silent rage about the injustice of it all. 

What is brilliant about Moore's performance is that despite how awful she is, we see that Beth does attempt to be human.  She, however, is too bound up by appearances to do so, until the end, when we see the breakdown, ever so small, when she decides to leave.  It's more than Moore just breaking away from her sunny persona.  It's her showing what an amazing talent she is.

Yes, let me say Mary Tyler Moore more than merits a Kennedy Center Honor.  Sorry, Led Zeppelin.

Joining her as a strong KCH candidate is Donald Sutherland, who for reasons no one will be able to explain was the only major cast member NOT nominated for an Oscar in Ordinary People (for the record, as of today he has yet to receive an Oscar nomination...while Jonah Hill has two.  Think on that for a moment).  His Calvin is the confused, slightly flummoxed father and husband, attempting to understand these two different and warring sides and realizing that he cannot remain neutral.

Given how good all the performances were, why then am I as cold towards Ordinary People as the Jarretts are towards the world?  Perhaps it is because sometimes the symbolism is openly heavy-handed (such as when Beth insists that a broken family plate can be fixed when it clearly cannot, the very nature of her inability to fix her broken family so, SO clear).  Perhaps it is how talk-heavy the film is.  All these people ever want to do is TALK, and while I'm not opposed to talking for goodness' sake, sometimes people can bore others with all their talk of how they feel. 

I will admit that not being a particularly emotional person myself I am not the first to get all touchy-feely about things.

Perhaps it is how the story is really clichéd and melodramatic, going through all its predictable beats in an orderly fashion.  Not having read Guest's novel, I figure this story of WASP suffering is not one taught along with Huckleberry Finn or Murder on the Orient Express.  It was meant to be a tearjerker, but really: Bucky?  Conrad?  Somehow, despite the film's best efforts, I still was a little removed from the suffering of the Jarretts (especially since they themselves refused to acknowledge it save for Conrad).

Again, after seeing Ordinary People, the story itself is I think predictable and something a bit melodramatic, something you'd find in a Lifetime Movie (at least not one involving a 'woman in peril').  It's not a bad movie by any means.  It's well-acted, well-directed, and moves, a bit glacially at times but at least towards a conclusion.  However, in the pantheon of GREAT FILMS, its very plainness makes it nothing particularly special and...yes, ordinary.




1981 Best Picture: Chariots of Fire

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