The Good: Exceptional acting, Interesting story, Great characters, Good direction, Everything!
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: An exceptional journey, Robert Redford's directoral debut plumbs the depths of human emotion with a family on the verge of a breakup following a son's death.
It has been a long time since I have seen a preview for a film and it has actually made me more excited about seeing the movie. Far too often, previews give away way too much of the film, especially contemporary previews. Half the time when I see a new movie, I feel cheated that I saw all of the best parts in the preview trailer. So, when I watched the preview trailer for Ordinary People on the DVD for that movie, it left me pleasantly surprised when I ended up absolutely loving the film. Despite the prevalence of scenes that were big dramatic moments being teased in the preview trailer, Ordinary People still proved itself to me to be an exceptional movie that deserved all of its many kudos.
Ordinary People is a strict drama where not much happens, save that people reveal themselves. At the same time, director Robert Redford uses the cinematic medium quite well. Despite presenting emotions and situations that might have worked as a stage play (Ordinary People was originally a novel), Redford uses a broader canvas shooting at multiple locations and including flashbacks and settings that make the broad human emotions being illustrated match his setting. As always under such circumstances, this is a review of the film Ordinary People, not the novel upon which it is based. As such, variances between the film and the book will not be explored as I have not even read the novel.
The Jarrett family is an upper class family that is struggling with staying together. The oldest Jarrett son, Buck, has recently died in a boating accident and a month after Con is released from a mental hospital because of his suicide attempt, Con's father Calvin encourages him to go see a psychiatrist. Unable to sleep because of his nightmares, Con reluctantly begins seeing Dr. Berger, much to Beth's (Con's mother) chagrin. As Con begins to come to terms with the feelings that led him to his suicide attempt, he quits the swim team and begins to romantically pursue his chorusmate, Jeannine Pratt.
But when Beth becomes aware that Con has quit the swim team, her anger pushes Con over the edge and Con tries to make Calvin aware of the rift between him and his mother. Calvin, seeing Dr. Berger himself, tries to reconcile his feelings of loss and he attempts to understand Beth himself. This culminates in Con understanding why he tried to kill himself and Beth and Calvin actually facing off over the death of Buck.
Ordinary People may well be one of the best difficult to watch films, right behind Magnolia (reviewed here!). Both films have awkward characters who are wrestling with difficult situations that keep them from living to their fullest potential. The fundamental difference is that while P.T. Anderson's magnum opus utilizes a massive cast and a wide tapestry of characters and situations, Redford's directoral debut is far more intimate. Ordinary People is very focused on three characters with Dr. Berger acting almost as a narrator in the film.
The result is a drama where people communicate and they deal with the consequences of their actions from before the film opened. The viewer is treated to a modest number of flashbacks that illustrate what life in the Jarrett household was like while Buck was alive and this becomes more than just a gimmick. Redford and authors Guest and Alvin Sargent have something worth saying and through the flashbacks, they expose the family blindness that Con asserts exists. Until the viewer is shown scenes where Beth clearly prefers Buck to Con (and Calvin) we only have the boy's word that that is the case. Through flashbacks, the audience comes to empathize with Con even more and even feel bad for Calvin for not recognizing the situation.
But this also offers the viewer a chance to empathize with Beth. Having lost her treasured son, her emotional reticence seems not only believable, but understandable. The viewer comes to feel that Beth, despite all of her quirks, has something very real working inside her heart.
Throughout Ordinary People, it is very easy for viewers to dislike Beth because she is awkward, emotionally withdrawn and exhibits an almost constant state of discomfort. This is the masterstroke of Mary Tyler Moore's acting. Moore plays Beth and entirely absent from her performance is any sense that she is the perky personality american audiences fell in love with. Instead, when she smiles it is painful to watch and there is a withdrawn quality to Moore's eyes that informs the viewer that this is not her default emotional state. Every delivery of every line Moore delivers is unsettling because there is such an emotional fracture that Moore is playing along. In fact, the only moments that Moore allows Beth to seem genuinely happy is in a flashback where Buck is present. This is unsettling considering that Calvin flashes back to a moment early in their relationship and there is still the sense that Beth is not as happy as she could be.
The human tragedy of Ordinary People is perfectly exemplified through Mary Tyler Moore's performance, but realized as well through Donald Sutherland's portrayal of Calvin and most notably through Timothy Hutton's performance as Con. Judd Hirsch gives a great portrayal of the psychiatrist Dr. Berger. Hirsch's performance is so good because there is no hint of humor, even in the moments when Berger is being confrontational. Indeed, the moment Hirsch proves his worth to the film is when he is sitting opposite Sutherland and Hirsch is the one who is magnetic and engaging.
It is Timothy Hutton who dominates the film as Con. Conrad is granted the lion's share of the focus in Ordinary People and Hutton is exceptional. From the first moment Hutton appears on screen, bleating out "Alleluias" in chorus, the viewer knows both that he is the protagonist and there is something deeply wrong with the character. Hutton's body language is that of a deeply traumatized youth the entire film and he has a mastery of the look of someone suffering from prolonged guilt. At the same time, he plays off each of his costars with an ease that makes him an instant professional worthy of the praises heaped upon him for his performance.
On DVD, Ordinary People comes only with the film's trailer and those who enjoy the movie will be left underwhelmed by the one-disc version. No doubt when this hits Blu Ray, a two-disc DVD with bells and whistles will be released. Until then, we're left with this. Fortunately, the source material is perfect, not necessitating more.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]
For other drama reviews, please visit my reviews of:
The Red Violin
Gods And Monsters
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.