Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Ordinary People

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Robert Redford, who is known to exercise a good deal of personal control over the films in which he is involved, has shown a near-manic fixation in recent years with embracing the sociopolitically correct position. In the excellent All the President’s Men as well as such middling efforts as Three Days of the Condor and The Electric Horseman and a downright cheat like Brubaker, the bad guys are shallow, unfeeling, and simply wrong, while the good guys enjoy at least a modicum of emotional depth and sail through the film on the wings of moral rectitude with rarely a serious contradiction or dilemma to confront. There is nothing wrong with simplistic character delineation in film: primitives like Fuller and Leone thrive on it. But Redford passes his work off as serious social realism and congratulates himself for taking a courageous position, while actually keeping the social activist side of his films thoroughly safe.

For his directorial debut, he’s determined to make 1980’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Did Kramer evoke emotion from a father’s and a son’s efforts to know each other? Then Ordinary People will examine the gap between a son and his mother. Did Kramer ground its characterizations in the architecture and environment of upper middle class New York? Then Ordinary People will do the same in the Midwest (after all, the Midwest has always been a nice metaphor for shallowness, hasn’t it? Brubaker, though based on an incident that occurred in Arkansas, was carefully set in Ohio: everybody knows there’s no justice in the South, after all …). Did Kramer use adapted Vivaldi to stylize the lives of its essentially lonely characters? Very well, we’ll adapt Pachelbel’s Canon. The halting, unpeopled picture-postcard shots that open the film betray Redford’s intent to expose a neat, tidy, cautious world and the damage it does to people; but in so doing, he makes a neat, tidy, cautious film, and never uses the apparent contradiction to any stylistic advantage. He utterly lacks the ambiguity of vision that Woody Allen brought to a similar subject in Interiors, revealing instead only a muddle of interests.

If we’re never quite sure exactly whose problem we’re dealing with in Ordinary People, it’s OK, because Redford isn’t sure either. Instead of treating the three Jarretts as part of a single syndrome, or interweaving the problems of all three in a meaningful way, Redford moves more or less arbitrarily from one to another, with no sense of destination. His mixed bag of cinematographic and editorial devices betrays the hand of the director who has no consistent stylistic concept of his own for the film. From the evidence onscreen, in fact, Redford appears to be interested in directing little more than actors. The apparently improvised scenes between Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch are the best moments of the film; and Elizabeth McGovern has a spontaneity and naturalness about her that’s utterly lacking in the rest of this avowedly realistic character movie. Donald Sutherland marks time and Mary Tyler Moore, making a valiant bid for serious stardom, but having been given nothing to sink her teeth into, chews not only scenery but lips: my wife commented, “If she bites that lip one more time she’s going to have it off!” Her Beth Jarrett carries the blame for literally everything that goes wrong in the lives of these Ordinary People; yet this most crucial character is buried under a landslide of head-wagging platitudes about cautious people who change the subject whenever anything serious comes up, and who pursue their own tidy structures and pastimes to avoid facing cruel realities. It’s a pity that Ordinary People makes no effort to love, or even to understand someone like Beth Jarrett. That would have been a courageous film, as well as an instructive experience for would-be director Redford.

Direction: Robert Redford. Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, after the novel by Judith Guest. Cinematography: John Bailey. Editing: Jeff Kanen. Music adaptation: Marvin Hamlisch.
The players: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, Dinah Manoff, M. Emmet Walsh, Meg Mundy, Richard Whiting.

© 1981 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.