Movie: Ordinary People (1980)

Prior to finally seeing this movie, the full extent of what I knew about it was this exchange in The Fisher King:

Customer [looking in shock at cover of videotape]: “Ordinary Peepholes?”

Clerk: “It’s a big-titty, spread-cheeky kind of thing”

It turns out Ordinary People isn’t a big-titty, spread-cheeky kind of thing, but the Best Picture recipient of 1981 could use an infusion of some sort of liveliness into it.

From the stark opening credits, to a montage of still photographs while the Pachelbel Canon plays on the soundtrack, we’re only minutes into the film and already it is hammering us over the head with THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PICTURE.  Ordinary People is so serious that I was shocked Alan Alda wasn’t in it.

And the subject matter isn’t the kind of thing which can be handled easily: the disintegration of a family following the death of the eldest son in a boating accident, and an attempted suicide by the younger son who had failed to intervene in the accident. 

That said, somber material does not automatically make a great picture.  It still has to tell a story, through characters we come to understand through interactions that are believable within the world the movie establishes. 

Timothy Hutton is Conrad, the younger son who finds himself slowly withdrawing from friends and activities, as well as from his warm but overly amiable father (Donald Sutherland) and his cold, pedantic mother (Mary Tyler Moore).  He finally finds some solace in sessions with a new psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch).

These are good actors and, while not an original concept, the movie has a foundation on which some interesting drama could be staged.  Unfortunately, only a few moments in the movie felt genuine to me, while the majority of the film kept me at arm’s length.  Some moments of both types even occurred in the same scene.

First, the bad.  Many of the scenes felt over-rehearsed, as if I could feel the exchange of lines having been timed with a stopwatch.  This is especially irritating in some of the sessions between Dalton and Hirsch.  I was surprised this was adapted from a novel and not from a play, as a surprising amount of the running time has scenes with the awkward staginess of early movies adapted from stage pieces.

Then there’s Moore’s role, which is thankless, to say the least.  Credit to her for a fully believable portrayal; however, we never really get an insight into what drives this person, and the result is she comes across as almost inhuman.  The appall on her face and rigid spine when she gets a hug from Dalton made me laugh long and hard.  The closest we come to understanding her is in a scene where she apologizes to her mother for breaking a plate: “I think this can be saved, it’s a clean break”.  This is basically all her character believes can be done—problems come up and you fix them.

On the plus side, there are many moments that work and they are of the kind I most like to see in a movie: seemingly ad-libbed exchanges between believable characters. 

Elizabeth McGovern, in particular, breathes life into the movie with her few appearances as a potential love interest for Hutton.  It is almost like a real person happened to stumble into a world where reality is modelled only on the plays of Isben.  And, even in the most artificial passages here, some truths still manage to shine through.

I don’t want to make Ordinary People appear worse than it is, but it isn’t as great as it and Oscars voters thought it was.  The oddest thing about Ordinary People is it presented realistic people in a believable scenario and yet it couldn’t convince me, for the most part, that these people were real.

Dir: Robert Redford

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch

Watched on: Amazon Prime