Saturday, December 19, 2015

Ordinary People

Last weekend, one of the many films sitting on my DVR that I finally got around to watching was Ordinary People. I thought it was supposed to be on one of the premium channels this weekend, but I think I might have missed the airing by a day or two since my box guide isn't showing it coming up any time soon. Thankfully it's available on DVD (and in print) so you can catch it whenever you want.

The movie starts with some idyllic autumnal images of an upscale suburban town (specifically Lake Forest, IL, although it could be anywhere) with a bed of piano music that one quickly realizes is Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D, a famous piece of classical music that you'll instantly recognize. This is an arrangement that has had words added, as we see when the montage of images eventually winds its way to a high schol choir. The camera focuses on one particular member of that choir. Cut to a shot of him waking up in a cold sweat.

That young man is Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton), and the shot of him waking up like that implies that there is something wrong with him. Oh yes, there is, but that's something we'll get to over the course of the movie. Connie comes downstairs for breakfast, and in that scene and one inbetween, we get subtle hints that part of what's wrong with Connie involves his parents. Conrad's friends on the swim team pick him up to go to school, and as they're stopped at the train tracks along the way, Conrad has another flashback, this one involving images of a cemetery.

It's all enough that Conrad finally decides that afternoon to make the difficult decision of calling Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), a psychologist whose name Conrad was given while he was in the hospital. Conrad makes an appointment to see Dr. Berger, and it is here that we finally begin to learn what is truly wrong with Conrad. To make a long story short, Conrad and his older brother Buck went boating on Lake Michigan, a squall came up, and the boat overturned, an accident in which Buck died while Conrad obviously survived. This tragedy hit Conrad hard, and eventually, for reasons we'll discover later in the movie, Conrad attmpted suicide. (The accident and Conrad's suicide attempt are only shown in fragmentary flashbacks; the movie starts some time after Conrad returns home from the mental hospital after his suicide attempt.) Conrad says he wants to be "in control", in the sense that he doesn't want to have these dreams and flashbacks, but Berger perceptively figures that Conrad is really looking for something else, mainly not to have to feel the negative emotions that come from having been in such an accident.

Meanwhile, Conrad returns to a lovely upper-middle-class home where just because he was out on the boat when the accident happened doesn't mean that he's the only one who had to confront a sense of grief and loss. The death of a brother (from Conrad's point of view) means that there are also two parents who lost their son, which has to be one of the most difficult things for anybody to endure. Mom Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) has decided to handle it from the point of view that life must go on, and putting on a brave face and showing everybody what a good mother she is; never mind that this might be a problem for Conrad and she doesn't realize it at all. Dad Calvin (Donald Sutherland), on the other hand, realizes that something is wrong but can't put a finger on it, and wants what's best for Conrad. Dad loves his wife, and compensates for her lack of affection toward Conrad since the accident by trying to be the "good cop".

Conrad continues to see Dr. Berger and begins to come to grips with the real reasons why he tried to commit suicide and why he's having so much trouble emotionally with his parents. He's also getting a bit of support from two girls in his life. Karen (Dinah Manoff) spent time with him in the hospital as she too had attempted to commit suicide and sometimes it seems as if Conrad wants to remain there emotionally with Karen. Just as important is Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), who is in the choir with Conrad and has taken a bit of a liking to him. But as Conrad begins to improve, it seems as though his family life is getting worse, with Dad and especially Mom showing an inability to deal healthily with one son's death and the other's current problems.

Ordinary People is an amazing movie in so many ways. First-time director Robert Redford won an Oscar for his direction, getting excellent performances from all of the main cast members without any of them lapsing into overwrought histrionics. Timothy Hutton does have one or two scenes with Judd Hirsch where he comes close, but to be fair the script requires it as Hutton is clearly a broken young man. Hutton won an Oscar, but it was in the Supporting Actor category presumably due to Academy rules regarding his billing. Hutton is the central character in the movie, and to call his character a supporting role is ludicrous.

Mary Tyler Moore is a revelation as Beth. I'm sure everybody recalls her from her comic roles on TV in The Dick Van Dyke Show and then her own Mary Tyler Moore Show. There's nothing comic here as she plays the emotionally cold mother. It would have been all too easy for her to play the role as a sort of Stepford Wife, but that would be entirely the wrong way to play it. Beth may be just as emotionally broken as Conrad, if not more so: at least he's trying to fix himself, while Beth goes on blithely because she doesn't want anybody to see that there might be something wrong. Moore was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter, who had the sort of role where it's much easier to see just how good an acting job the person is doing.

Donald Sutherland, I think, doesn't get enough credit for the job he does here. He has a difficult task playing the character who seems the most normal, but only begins to realize all too late that perhaps he might have had a part to play in his son's suicide attempt. Even more than with Moore's role, it's easy to overlook the acting job it takes to play a part like this. The supporting characters also barely put a foot wrong in the color that they add to the movie.

Perhaps most to the movie's credit, it all rings so real. There have been a lot of movies about teen angst over the decades. The Production Code, I think, prevented a lot of the reality of teen angst and even more seriously depression from making it to the screen. James Dean's histrionics in Rebel Without a Cause come across as utterly phony. Even in a later movie I really like such as The Breakfast Club, there's a big scene with Judd Nelson talking about his home life that comes across as overdone. In Ordinary People, however, I saw so much that comes across as genuine. There's the scene at McDonald's where Conrad is finally beginning to open up in a non-clinical environment to somebody (possible girlfriend Jeannine) about what the suicide attempt was like and how it felt, only for his former swim teammates to come in ebullient after a victory and break the atmosphere. Nobody but Conrad has any idea what's going on at that particular moment for him and what a disappointment this utterly normal act is. There's another sequence involving Conrad, his parents, his grandparents, and taking Christmas pictures that could almost be funny since it's such a ludicrous little thing, but again plays out as something that would happen in real life.

If Ordinary People has any flaws, they're minor. I already mentioned above that Conrad gets close to being unrealistically overwrought in some of his scenes with Dr. Berger, but because of the severity of his emotional difficulties, the ultimate catharsis is expected to be emotionally wrenching. There's also one phone call when Conrad calls Karen and her parents answer where the dialog seems all wrong, but that's an exceedingly minor quibble. The movie does end on uncertain note, and some viewers may not like the lack of real resolution, but it's in keeping with the rest of the movie. Life doesn't always go where we expect, or even go anywhere. Ordinary People reflects that.

I don't think I can recommend Ordinary People highly enough. It really is that good.

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