29 May 2001 | Movie-12
Beautiful script, characters, and flawless filmmaking. A movie not to forget. **** (out of four)
As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I envy Alvin Sargent, the mastermind behind the script of the Academy Award winning 1980 drama "Ordinary People." Based on the equally as heartbreaking novel by Judith Guest, "Ordinary People" flawlessly captures all aspects of great cinema. The scenes have the perfect timing; the performances are vividly descriptive and entirely convincing; the direction is efficacious and focused. The filmmaker's never pretend that this movie is easy to watch, but they sure do produce an emotional and mental response from the viewer.
"Ordinary People" launched Timothy Hutton's career, rewarding him with an Oscar. It's too bad his career as an actor seems to be traveling downhill. Although his award was for best actor in a supporting role, he is truly the center of the movie. Hutton plays Conrad Jarrett, the son of Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). The Jarretts are recovering over various recent disasters. They lost their first born son to an accident, for which Conrad blames himself. His grief eventually provokes a failed suicide attempt.
As the movie opens, we meet the family. We never witness Conrad's suicide attempt, the preceding family death, nor do we see anything than happens during his hospital stay. "Ordinary People" knows exactly where to start and what to show. It leaves a great deal to our imagination. It gives us freedom to put ourselves in the character's shoes. This is a realistic portrayal of a crippled family trying to mend with problems.
Several key characters also contribute to the rehabilitation of Conrad. Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), provides Conrad with psychological guidance; the high school swimming coach (E. Emmet Walsh) understands Conrad's condition, but still doesn't want the swim team to lose his talent; Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) befriends the struggling Conrad; Karen (Dinah Manoff) another similarly hospitalized with Conrad, gives him some added confidence.
"Ordinary People" took home Academy Awards for best picture, director, supporting actor, adapted screenplay, Mary Tyler Moore's deserving performance, and earned various other nominations, including the supporting performance by Judd Hirsch. It is clear why the film won so much praise by critics and audiences alike: we can clearly identify with the characters and their situation.
The characters are beautifully written. I cannot remember the last movie I saw that so vividly captures individual lifestyles and personal tragedies. Every character plays an important role in Conrad's life. His father feels his son's suicide attempt is due to his poor parenting. The materialistic mom finds it difficult to contend with difficulties and to forgive her son for what he did to her public image. Conrad's problems evolve into larger, more complex issues of love, compassion, forgiveness, and our personal differences.
The actors really deserve the crown here. If there was even one who did not live up to the great expectations, they would appear obvious and subtract from the film's emotional grasp. Timothy Hutton really portrays his character well. Every emotional aspect feels real, justified, and understood. Mary Tyler Moore portrays the film's potential villain believably as well. She makes is obvious that Beth would rather run from problems instead of dealing with them. After seeing Donald Sutherland in many recent film's that seem rather terse, I formed opinions about his credibility and ability that his performance here proves wrong. He is definitely a gifted actor when dealt good material. In this performance, easily the best of his career, he captures every minuet detail of a father struggling with his past, present, and future.
"Ordinary People" shares much in common with 1999's best picture winner, "American Beauty." That was another great film, but "Ordinary People" contains debatably better material. "American Beauty" looked tragedy in the eye and found respect, mockery, and grace. "Ordinary People" never bestows comic material, however, but it does trace suffering to its root, and finds disorientation, embarrassment, and sorrow. This is not an easy movie to watch, but a challenging, perceptive, tragic story that you are not likely to forget.