Ordinary People (1980)

Dir. Robert Redford. Starring Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore

For a movie which places several of its most important scenes in therapy—a movie which is obsessive about getting Conrad (Hutton) to say what it is that’s been eating him up—it’s shocking that no one is willing to tell Beth (Moore), in plain English, that she blames her younger son for killing her older one. It is deeply obvious to us watching the Jarretts as they yell at each other and indulge in pregnant silences. Con can say out loud that his mother hates him, but he’s always afraid to leave it there; he’ll pull it back if it causes too much conflict, and so the cycle begins again. Certainly this is a movie which understands family dynamics, the way that a child’s mood affects a parent affects another parent, the way a wife’s behavior alters her husband’s. But the effect is, in the moment, basically empty. Ordinary People is one of those movies that sounds better as a synopsis than it works as a picture.

Much of the problem with the movie is the acting, which is just overwhelmingly bad with few exceptions. Hutton is terrifically wooden, a Pinocchio who needs an adult actor to anchor him. With Dinah Manoff, playing a young woman anxious to return to a drama club meeting, the scene is no better than a high school stage show. One searches the restaurant for cue cards. The problem is that Hutton is surprisingly funny, and the role only gives him minor moments to showcase that sudden humor, the way he practices conversations before they happen, the way he thinks about giving himself a different name on the phone because his is stupid. (Conrad, Buck, Cady, Regina, Ferris, Jeanie, Sloane Peterson. If you’re a rich white person from suburban Chicago, you shouldn’t be allowed to name your own children.) There’s more time devoted to him punching people or screaming incoherently than there is with that slyness, though, leaving us without adequate person to recognize.

Either Moore is badly miscast or the film’s intentions are foolish, because Beth Jarrett is evil. There is a ridiculous human being masquerading as a hurt one in this movie, down to the melodramatic way she turns her head, a clockwork ticking movement that recalls Truly Scrumptious pretending to be a mechanical toy. (Maybe Beth and Con have something in common after all.) She has no compromise within her, which makes the character a cartoon. She always preferred her elder son Buck (Scott Doebler) to her younger Conrad; it’s no accident, and maybe a little simple, that the mother’s son has her first initial and the father’s has his. She never visited Conrad in the hospital after he tried to kill himself. She actively tries to exclude him when she makes family plans, ensuring that she spends time with her husband but never has to see him. She tells her husband, Cal (Sutherland) to wear a different outfit to their son’s funeral, a little tidbit which Cal recollects months later with something like awe. “I was crazy that day,” he said, burying our son, and you were concerned with my shoes? She blames Cal, in some part, for the fractious atmosphere in the house; he caters too much to Con’s whims, she says, constantly trying to make him feel better in lieu of creating discipline in him, or something. Cal asks her if she loves him late in the movie, and she says, “I feel the way I’ve always felt about you,” which is the kind of ridiculous thing a sociopath says. Either someone loves a person or they do not, but a euphemism is so transparent a lie that one wonders why the movie even has her try it. Ordinary People doesn’t have any perspective on her other than “supervillain.” It can’t possibly, because there is simply no way for us to feel sympathy for her or approach her like she has more than one side to her. This isn’t a case of “She’s too tough” or “She’s not ‘mom’ enough.” I am not jarred because she’s not feminine enough or something; I found her jarring because she is never given any time to have a single redeeming quality. At the end of the movie, she runs away to Houston when Cal tells her that he isn’t sure if he loves her anymore, and watching her pack up is totally anticlimactic, even absurdist, like watching the Wicked Witch of the West put some of her spare clothes in a suitcase.

The movie, thank heavens, does not fall to the “cute girl saves sad young guy” level that I thought it would, although it certainly teeters there for a while. At first it seems like Karen might be the unlucky lady, but she kills herself, opting out, as it were, and sending Con into a tailspin from which he nearly cannot recover. Later on, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) comes along to bring sunshine and enthusiasm into Con’s choir rehearsals and bowling escapades, although the actual saving of Conrad will occur in a shrink’s office as opposed to some exhausted, posed experience masquerading as liberation. She isn’t there for it—she’ll witness the denouement and invite him in to breakfast—but even this occurs after she accidentally betrays him by responding to some rowdy jocks while they have a heavy conversation at Mickey D’s. All in all, the movie’s three sympathetic characters are male, and the three of them by and large only seem to find real sympathy with one another.

Both Con and Cal have to go to Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) to find someone who will fix them: in short, they go to him to be mothered and wifed. In some ways he bears a resemblance to Beth. His speech is calculated and quick, and at times he seems not to listen or to give offense purposefully. He challenges Conrad frequently, refusing to let him see how much time is left in a session or questioning his penchant for blaming himself with words bordering on harsh. He is the kind of psychiatrist one sees frequently in movies but who would not survive long in the competitive and needy ecosystem of the WASPy North Shore. In essence, Hirsch is a less colorful version of what Robin Williams would do nearly two decades later in Good Will Hunting, but Berger is more sympathetic because he cedes less ground to someone who cannot afford to feed his pain any longer. What I dislike about him I largely chalk up to Alvin Sargent and his Oscar-winning adapted screenplay, which is bilge. “Feelings are scary,” Berger says at one point. “You’re here, and you’re alive, and don’t tell me you don’t feel that,” he says later. He playacts as Buck while Conrad screams at him because Conrad suddenly can’t tell the difference? The legend of how Dustin Hoffman got The Graduate goes back to how Redford, upon being asked if he’d ever struck out with a girl, replied “What do you mean?” Unfortunately, Sargent seems to know as much about therapy as Redford knew about being given the brush, and alas: meaninglessness in the scenes which move the plot and anchor the presumed emotion in the movie.

There is only one saving grace to this picture, and that’s Donald Sutherland. In 1973, Don’t Look Now featured Sutherland as a parent who lost a child to drowning; obviously, Ordinary People is not quite up to meeting that standard, but Sutherland manages to be about eighty percent as good here as he was seven years before. Aside from some unintentional comedy (he says “aboot,” bless his Canuck heart), he is the only consistently moving element of the film. People change in the movie: Beth gets more ornery, somehow, while Conrad learns to be a mature person who stops believing that he’s guilty of every little thing. Cal is a gentle person, I think, and that stays more or less in place throughout the movie. He is concerned about his son from the first and pushes him to seek continued psychiatric treatment even after he’s been released from the hospital. What Beth describes as coddling in Cal’s dealings with Con seems much more like love, affection, and, if you’re inclined to read some extra fear or cynicism into the movie, insurance. He is distracted at parties, at work, at home by his son’s trouble. He seeks out Dr. Berger at one point, tells him he doesn’t really believe in psychiatry, and then, naturally, spills his guts. (I think I came to talk about me, he says. I give Sutherland some credit here as I try to credit Hirsch, but like, Alvin Sargent has an Academy Award for that little nugget.) All the same, it’s an empathy for his son and a need to understand what’s happening which is deeply likable, and Sutherland leans into that with aplomb.

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