Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)


Here’s a good example of Hollywood elite types rallying around of their own beloveds despite his generation of a remarkably bad idea. Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People, despite the central hollowness — very much of its time — in its treatment of psychiatry, families, and adolescent behavior, might make some sense as a play. It’s almost nothing but dialogue, with few elaborations of scene or concept, so the resulting film comes across as kind of a chamber piece, a dilution of certain wings of ’70s art cinema. What on earth, then, was Robert Redford’s attraction to this as his directorial debut? One can only assume that being an actor, he wanted an acting powerhouse. What he got instead is a near-total disaster of one-note performances, thematic ineffectiveness, and general blathering obviousness that seems symptomatic of far too much distance from the story itself.

That story is a deliberately claustrophobic chronicile of a three-member family falling apart in the period after a fourth member has been killed in a boating accident. Surviving son Conrad, an aloof Timothy Hutton, was there and blames himself, thus has recently attempted suicide and spent time in a mental institution. His dad (Donald Sutherland) steps slowly around and gawks like a doped-up Cuckoo’s Nest refugee; mother (Mary Tyler Moore) is a wild-eyed psychopath whose skin crawls when Conrad says he loves her and gets sent off into a golfing rage when the boy announces that he did a good job on a test or something, and oh my god don’t tell her it might be a good idea to see someone about all this. Then along comes Dr. Berger, a painfully miscast Judd Hirsch, who tries to turn this into the therapist’s-office equivalent of one of those episodes of Taxi in which he and Elaine exchanged meaningful pathos with a minimum of physical contact. The good doctor gets in Conrad’s face to tell him how to turn his troubles around and sail along his obscurely merry way. Conrad learns in true afterschool special fashion to face up to his demons; father Calvin is compassionate and Good, mother Beth is hate-filled and Evil (and of course, still grief-stricken) and thus she doesn’t want help, so she can’t be helped.

With the sole exception of a love interest brought in with quite a bit of subtlety and compassion by Elizabeth McGovern, neither the characters nor the performances in Ordinary People are at all convincing or compelling. Hutton, who sped away with an Academy Award, is a nonentity; Sutherland seems to be in a wholly different movie. Moore’s contribution is an interesting case study in how an actor we know for a fact is gifted — we have hundreds of hours of evidence — can do something so completely wrongheaded and incompetent she’s barely recognizable. Fellow sitcom veteran Hirsch tries to sell the movie’s Cliff’s Notes version of psychiatry with ridiculous big-bro renditions of lines like “Feelings are scary. Sometimes they’re painful.”

Aside from some aesthetically pleasing location shots and a general sense of wintertime dread, Redford brings nothing unique or idiosyncractic to these proceedings, and the translation of novel to film suffers because the situations as brought to screen here make so little sense. Moore is so defiant and outrageous in her hatred of her child that the film ceases to be believable very soon after its inception; we’re later made aware that she didn’t visit Conrad in the hospital when he cut himself, she doesn’t hug him back when he embraces her, she refuses to take his problems seriously, and she doesn’t even want a photograph taken with him. Over the top as it is, it comes across as a rather staid case study of a woman who is so immensely selfish we have no reason to want her to get well; the movie feels no empathy toward her, so we can’t, making this the second Best Picture winner in a row to treat its female lead like a piece of dirt… and this from a novel written by a woman. Moore honestly does her best here, but there’s only so far you can go to enliven a sociopath who’s given no depth or complexity; she spends the entire movie being irked about everything, including the fact that her husband isn’t as angry as she is. She’s meant to be only a third of the film’s narrative, but Hutton is such a bore and Sutherland is given so little to do that she more than dominates the narrative — she chews it up and spits it out. It’s one of the most baffling performances I’ve ever seen.

The doubled-down exclusion of everything outside a small clean world in this family’s life is more disturbing than its supposedly wounding, raw dialogue; we just want to escape to something larger that it can’t possibly show for us. The only evidence of something better than all the slammed doors and outbursts is McGovern’s Jeannine and her genuine affection for Conrad, then that spell is broken by jocks who burst into a McDonald’s and do… something, it’s kind of unclear what exactly, that gets Conrad all pissy. He also has a friend who kills herself, just to throw that in. He might try to kill himself again too. It’s just a parade of laughs, and overrun with the kind of insincerity we now associate with Lifetime movies, which is what this probably should have been.

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