Ordinary People Review

(3.5 STARS)

Ordinary People is one of those Best Picture winners that gets a bad rap. It’s easy to write the film off because it’s a simple, though powerful, vision, and it went up against one of the most highly regarded films ever (Raging Bull). But you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, completely ignore a film this good. It’s complex and moving, but not in an overly sentimental way. For the 90% of the film, Robert Redford (in his directorial debut, nonetheless) doesn’t let his characters take the easy way out. The raw emotions on hand feel real because they are complicated. The ending feels like a cop out, which brought the film down just a bit, but the rest of the film and its strong performances more than make up for it.

The film begins about a six months after the Jarrett Family has been brought to its knees when Buck, the elder of two Jarrett siblings, died in a boating accident, and shortly thereafter, the younger brother, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), tried to commit suicide. After a lengthy stint in the hospital, Conrad still hasn’t fully recovered and is still haunted by dreams of the accident. His parents, on the other hand, aren’t quite sure how to handle him. His mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), is very cold toward him. His father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), simply wants to return things to normal.

Ordinary People isn’t all that different from films like Rabbit Hole or In the Bedroom. Its characters are all complex, as are the emotions they are dealing with (or in some cases, not dealing with). Easily the most vivid character is Conrad. He definitely has a lot of issues he’s dealing with (in the film, he regularly visits a therapist played by Judd Hirsch), and the way struggles with them directly drives the plot. Despite what the Academy declared (Hutton inexplicably was nominated for and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Ordinary People is Conrad’s story.

Where the film has a problem is with its ending. To be fair, there’s only so much you can do when your source material is a beloved novel, but what happens with this film’s ending is that it loses sight of just whose story this is. It simplifies things in the hope of providing a pat resolution for those we sympathize with. And worst of all, it completely disposes of one vital character. What happens to this character is a shame, for her or she (don’t want to spoil it) provided the film with much of its complexity. I wish the film ended more strongly, for it definitely could have been a four-star picture.

The film is an acting showcase. Timothy Hutton’s Oscar was well-deserved. I adored the way Conrad wears his emotion on his sleeves, and the fusion of intensity and vulnerability within the character commands your attention whenever he’s onscreen (which is for most of the film). Mary Tyler Moore is astonishingly good as the mother from hell. She genuinely doesn’t care for her son, and she repeatedly forces her husband to choose between her and Conrad. She’s a character who typically would be sympathetic (suffering mother who has undergone a tragedy), but Moore makes her seem downright despicable. Finally, there’s Donald Sutherland, who’s the good guy in the bunch. He just wants to bring everyone he loves back together, and he struggles admitting to himself that it might just not be possible.

Ordinary People’s Best Picture win is typically not looked upon with great favor, but compared to many of its fellow 1980s winners, it’s a triumph. The film is emotionally honest and I was pleased by how often it restrains itself. There are a few moments of over-direction, as well as a weak ending, but on the whole, it’s a worthy motion picture that deserves more praise than it typically receives.

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