Ordinary People (1980)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 09/28/11 19:28:02

"Above-ordinary film."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Ordinary People is a film that, when talked about today, tends to get mentioned with either a sneer or a shake of the head. It is, after all, the film that had the temerity to beat Raging Bull and Martin Scorsese to the big Oscars that year.

I won't concern myself with what did or didn't deserve to win that year (I'm not actually a huge fan of Raging Bull and for my money The Elephant Man was better than both), suffice to say that it's easy to see just why Redford's film triumphed that year. It has heart and feeling, yet ultimately bathes in safe and conservative waters.

Grief can affect people in a myriad of ways. For the Jarrett family, who have lost their oldest teenage son, Buck, in a boating accident, it has splintered and fragmented them. The father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) is attempting to put a brave face on things, acting as the mediator at all times and trying to get on with life. After all, isn't that the only way to move on? His wife, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), however, is taking the opposite approach. For her, moving on means decidedly NOT covering up other people's flaws and mistakes and the grief at losing her son has curdled into bitterness in her stomach, seeping out of her every pore, and leading her to lashing out at other people's perceived weaknesses. Who knows, maybe that's an ultimately more honest approach.

The target of this tends to be youngest son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) who was sailing with Buck when he died and has taken it extremely badly, leading to a suicide attempt. Because of this he's been sent to a psychiatrist, Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch) who attempts to get get Conrad to accept his grief and stop hiding from it. It's clear, however, that it's not just Conrad in the Jarrett family who needs help and therapy.

It's a refreshingly uncomplicated film, that sets its stall out early and sticks to it rigidly. There are no frills to it (some may see this as a flaw, I don't) and it's cool and measured as to how it deals with the emotional fall-out of the death of a child. If the script becomes didactic at times, fond of having characters elucidate just how they're feeling a few too many times, it's a consequence perhaps unavoidable in a film so determined to stay close to its characters. It may fall into melodrama at frequent points, but at least it feels like honest melodrama.

It is, of course, also an actor's playground of a film. Hutton and Hirsch get the biggest scenes, batting back and forth dialogue that is emotional torment for Hutton and smartly-delivered pearls of wisdom for Hirsch. They have a lovely, easy chemistry together, prefiguring what Matt Damon and Robin Williams would do about 17 years later, and you could easily watch the entire film devoted to them. Berger has no easy answers for Conrad, and to his credit, Conrad doesn't expect any. It's that low-key honesty that keeps the film's rawness just at the surface.

It's easy to forget if you first saw him in the '90s when he took on a succession of rent-a-villain roles and became more famous as Kiefer's dad, that for a while in the '70s and '80s, Donald Sutherland was one of the most interesting American actors around. He gets the most difficult role here, as the father trying to see the best in everyone and be fair to everyone else's varying wounded approaches to their loss, whilst keeping his own feelings locked away somewhere. Hutton gets to cry and shout a lot, but it's Sutherland's buttoned-down and silent grieving that's ultimately the most affecting. It contrasts particularly well to Moore's sharp-tongued Beth. She doesn't mince her words, and never thinks about why she should. There are frequent moments that make you hold her breath, such as one moment where she compares Conrad's reaction to Buck's death, to how it would have been if it were the other way round. Cruel, yes, but there's an honesty to Beth, too, that she simply can't stop herself saying what she's feeling - which is probably the film's point.

Redford doesn't direct the film; not really. He simply turns the camera on and lets the actors get on with it. While there's something to be said for such an unobtrusive style, there's also something to be said for injecting a director's personality into a film. It seems so relentlessly determined not to judge anyone, and so agonisingly careful to tip-toe around potentially offending anyone's approach to grief, that it becomes less of a film and more a series of scenes from an actor's workshop. It's this warm milk, conservative, hand-holding approach that is both the film's biggest strength and flaw. It's measured and intelligent, yes; but also has the feeling of an intellectual exercise of a TV movie elevated by some great acting to the big screen.

Soapy but affecting, quiet but effective. Ordinary People really doesn't deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it by indignant Scorsese fanboys, but it's also hard to imagine that it was the best film released that month, let alone year.

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