- Movie Rating -

Ordinary People (1980)

| September 19, 1980

The only way to really examine Ordinary People is to imagine how it might have been done in lesser hands.  I imagine a movie about a family in crisis that has a problem at the beginning, a shouting match in the third act and a reconciliation at the end.  I’ve seen that movie over and over, but this movie is different, much deeper, much more human.  It is really something special.

This is a movie about a wealthy family who hide their emotional turmoil behind a wall of materialistic goods: The proper lawn, the right furniture, the perfect drapes, the best floral arrangement, etc.  When tragedy strikes, the fulcrum of the movie is that those tightly guarded emotions cannot hide behind dishes and wall-to-wall carpeting. 

Again, I thought I knew this.  I assumed that the tragedy would bring them closer together, that they would realize that the materialism is less important than the nucleus of what they have in each other.  I saw in my mind an ending with the mother holding the son and the father with his arms around both. Turns out this is not that movie much closer to the ground than that.

It is clear that the glue that held the Jarret family together was Buck, the treasured eldest son who died I a boating accident a year ago.  In this perfect house are spaces where Buck use to be, spaces where the emotional crisis was lifted by the success that he was in the process of becoming.  Alas, he is gone and all around them are reminders of what might have been.

The survivors don’t know how to relate.  Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) have been married for years, but married to what.  It’s an image, a placement among the house that seems fitted for Better Homes and Garden.  Calvin in a successful Chicago attorney who has always seen his family’s bond as solid and has basically ignored the problems just under the surface.

The mother is Beth, whose home looks like a magazine cover and so too does her place in the community.  She hides behind a wall of sterility and so her place in the community is friendly but not exactly intimate.  She’s as active in this community as she is in the smaller details of her well-maintained home.

Spinning in turmoil is Conrad (Timothy Hutton), the youngest son who has always lived in big brother’s shadow and was so distraught that he tried to commit suicide and has just returned from intense psychotherapy.  He loves his parents, but there are complications.  The relationship that he has with his father, for example, is genuine but is blocked by the man’s inability to express how he feels.

From Beth, Conrad sees some measure of resentment.  Buck was the favorite, and her only association with her younger son was in comparison to her golden boy, now gone.  Whatever they had was bound up in the perfection they saw in Buck and now without him their feelings are out in the open.

What is amazing about these people is that, over the course of a year, their true natures come out.  They grow and change, not in the way that the script requires, but in ways that are true to their nature. 
This is not TV drama, director Robert Redford finds the heart of these characters in the same way that Judith Guest found in her novel – that’s hard to do.  It is easy to raze loud speeches and peak dramatic moments, but to really let the three participants expose their vulnerabilities requires a deeper level of understand, a deeper level of writing. 

The movie never panders to us and never gives its characters an even break.  It allows them to find the heart of their problem and decide what they see as the best option for dealing with it.  I love movies like this.  I love movies that find the deeper humanity in the characters.  When it is over, what has come about it not plot-related, but owes a great deal to what we know of the characters and what we logically know they will do next.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized