Ordinary People (1980)
Directed by Robert Redford
Novel by Judith Guest
Adapted Screenplay by Alvin Sargent & Nancy Dowd (uncredited)
With a title like “Ordinary people,” it probably won’t come as a surprise to you that this is a drama that takes it’s time. The plot unfolds with deliberately heavy feet. The film centers around the Jarrett Household. Conrad (Timothy Hutton), as well as his parents, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), are trying to cope with the death of his brother. Since then, their remaining troubled son has attempted to commit suicide and a month later skeptically agrees to see a psychologist (Judd Hirsh) by the encouragement of his concerned father.
Troubled teens in normal families
Donnie Darko is often compared to this film since the tone, setting, family interactions, and even parts of the physical house itself bear instant resemblances. Except this film actually was shot in the 80s and is just a straight up drama, without the horror or Science fiction intertwined. Even Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting as well his build is ridiculously similar to Timothy Hutton’s. I’d like to think the rest of events that happen are much like Good Will Hunting’s if they happened to Will during his senior year of high school. Yeah it’s like Donnie Darko’s family atmosphere, add a death in the family, and the events of Good Will Hunting take over, except the main character isn’t a genius. He’s an ordinary person… or is he?
Ordinary people swept up the awards in 1981, taking home six academy awards and six golden globes. It also received a BAFTA nominee in 1982. This obviously is largely to do with the subject matter, but primarily the performances of all four members of the main cast. Having a famous name like Robert Redford direct it didn’t hurt it either. However, I can’t evaluate my feelings on this movie by taking note of people’s opinions 30 years ago. All I can do is watch this movie at my own convenience and think about it.
So what do I think? Simply stated, Ordinary People is a good solid movie. There are many great things to dissect. It would be easy for me to praise the film in the areas that everyone does as valid as they are indeed. However, then my review would then be meaningless, and you might as well set it on fire and throw it into Gehenna along with the other corpses that will never be remembered.
Watching this film I was bored and even grew slightly weary the first half of the it. So is boredom bad? Not necessarily. Some of my favorite films methodically instill the pacing of a caterpillar to metamorphose into something else later. It’s a great way to set you up for an unpredictable change in tone as long as doing so more effectively illustrates the theme of the film. Even further than that, movies don’t have to have only one personality, even if one of them is a little dull. Without telling you how much or little I like these, examples of movies that start as one thing and change into another are Audition, Synecdoche New York, Vertigo, Akira, Mulholland Drive, Perfect Blue, Seven Samurai or perhaps Psycho.
Ordinary People for the most part doesn’t change tone which is fitting for it’s themes nor am I saying that it should. I just wasn’t thrilled by it. Believe me I don’t think every single movie should be shot like films that have ADHD or abandon their original film’s points of interest for an irrelevant one. I firmly believe in careful plot development even if it takes an hour. However the longer you take the more valuable your payoff needs to be. I’m only emphasizing why I consider this film good but not great.
Finding oddness in the ordinary
Why was I weary for a moment there as I mentioned earlier? Halfway through, I was worried that Ordinary People would only stay safely within it’s boxed in characters, or appropriate stereotypical labels. Every single written character, good or bad, starts with a basic cliche. When you think of a sports hero you get a mental picture of notable qualities they all might seem to share. If you combine them with an anthropologist, who is fascinated by whales, and went to school to be a bartender, you have defied views that limit his character. So essentially I was worried that these ordinary people wouldn’t grow out of their basic written shells. I already didn’t care for the starting point of their characters, but I liked that they were being tested with an abnormal occurrence, the death of an immediate family member. If more bad events befell them and they didn’t retaliate by changing who they were, I would have been ticked off.
So before I risk expressing myself to a pontificating degree (hopefully I’m not too late), I did think this was a good solid film. It’s nothing more, nothing less. I enjoyed it. I quite like how Dr. Tyrone Berger, a professor in emotions, was written with a brute, no nonsense, cut-the-crap kind of attitude. Though many psychologists sometimes resemble a sports coach’s character, you rarely see them cross past that to drill sergeant territory. The Jarrett family doesn’t display those kind of oddities, nor should they I suppose with the title. Calvin, however is on the swimming team, which he later quits as his character evolves. Yes, yes, more of that.
He also ends up getting all smiley ‘n friendly like with a real charmer from choir practice (Elizabeth McGovern) who he ends up dating. Other than going to see the psychiatrist when he really needs him, that was the smartest move he ever made. She loves his singing voice and is interested in his psychological problems (I’m not going to lie. I was totally jealous. What a lucky dog). The end of the screenplay also does in fact make a drastic change involving the family which of course I won’t reveal. That’s what I like to see.
As I alluded to before, the acting and the screenplay’s dialog is what won this film awards. You’ve got some touching lines grounded in reality from all of the family, as well as from Calvin’s psychologist. There were some emotional outbursts from all of the cast, which could have been disastrous. There were lots of emotions flying all over the place in the dialog. Even Dr. Tyrone Berger did a little provoking to get his patient to be frank with him. After it works and Calvin seems exhausted from telling him to basically screw off, the doctor says, “A little advice about feelings kiddo, don’t always expect it to tickle.” It was nice to see that the motivations for each outburst were well thought out and written with contemplation. The death of their family member has different effects on the relationships of the remaining three. As a result, certain relationships grow distant while another is brought together. Calvin’s dealings with his friends and school turn the overall tide as well. I can see why this screenplay was picked for an academy award.
Learning about what’s needed
The Jarrett family doesn’t remain as just average people. Pretty much the whole family goes through some sort of self-sorting psychology session even if they don’t meet with Dr Berger. Through most of those scenes you do in fact see the characters growing and changing their future plans to compensate. The problem with being normal is that abnormal things occur everyday without warning. If you don’t adjust, the abnormal things will do it for you and not in a good way.
Abnormal people understand abnormal things
There is much to consider and pick apart in the back of my mind, and rather than getting into every detail I’ll sum it up with this point. If the original writer of the novel, Judith Guest, or the adapting screenplay writers really relate with this book, it shows how limited their understanding of this subject is. How so? The story is about people who had no problems, and wouldn’t have had any prior to their family disaster. Do you see where I’m going with this? A person who truly understands about getting back up from the blows life deals would be one who suffered multiple challenges from the beginning. It would be in their DNA. Now mind you, I did say “if” the writers related with this story they don’t know much about the subject. There’s no way to know for sure. What I did gather was that the advice from Dr. Berger, as well as some of the personal expressions from each family member did seem to ring true to me. It was down to earth and geared towards really teaching it’s audience something.
To me, as horrible as death is, it would have been really creepy for that particular family’s relationships to go on the way they did before their son died. It also would have never changed if it hadn’t happened. I’m not saying that the death was a good thing, but that their lack of communication about heavier matters was very disturbing.
Now, I’m most certainly not trying to come off like a heartless critic on anyone’s personal background. I love the fact that this story got out to the public, and it’s a influence to many. I’m only pointing out how in order for us to get to a mind blowing level (or how about just a great one) of real life psychological understanding, it has to come from someone from an abnormal place. Not only that but studying average people who respond to each other predictably is uninteresting.
Ironically Beth Jarrett, as unlikable as she might have been, was the most unusual character presented, and yet we never studied her or tried to understand her. She was just written off as someone we couldn’t learn anything from. I wanted to know why she wasn’t affectionate. What happened to her to become that way? Why was she weak (as which is later pointed out)? Why did she have to ignore her emotions to get through her life? That would have been really interesting to study.
Yeah yeah yeah, you and your abnormal review
Well enough of my psycho analysis of this story’s version of it. Obviously, this film is for people interested in the grounded and difficult struggles of family life, and it tells it’s story through more personal and psychological conversations. It manages to break some cliches and typical patterns of most families but not all. It’s easy to see how groundbreaking Robert Redford’s film was in 1980, but as both problems and families have progressed, so has the films about them. This film does in fact go further than most I’ve seen (not that the average dictates a really high level). The dialog did end up great as well as the acting, but it took half of the film to get there. Summing things up, those two things were what I loved most about it. The films I give five stars to, are ones that barrage you in many different aspects, or they do one thing better than anyone else previously.
Nevertheless, this movie was a solid watch which I didn’t regret. I wouldn’t argue with someone who gave this four stars, I guess I just didn’t relate with it as much as someone else might. I certainly enjoyed it, but it would be a while before I saw it again. You should see it. It’s a true people’s person kind of film. If you stick it out through Ordinary People you will eventually be rewarded with some memorable performances and exchanges.