Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)
Category: Sad movie about familial guilt. Family issues crop up frequently in the sad films covered on the blog. Often it’s just because certain family members are mean to others, but in this case it’s because of a sad event that is difficult for the family to deal with. (To be specific, this is a sad movie about boating accidents. We’ll get to the absurdity of going on boats later.) These sad events generally cause guilt, and guilt is so awful, especially because it's often the result of something that you didn’t even do. Which when you think about it is pretty un-American. Most people in this country don’t even feel bad when things ARE their fault. (They’d feel differently if they knew my mom.)
My familiarity with this issue: I try to avoid guilt where I can, but it’s not easy. So many normal everyday things make me feel guilty, like not giving a homeless guy a dollar, or not going to the gym/being a member of a gym. But it’s important to draw the line somewhere. As mentioned earlier, some of the guilt in this movie comes as a result of a character’s death in a boating accident. This would not make me feel guilty. Not to be mean or anything, but if someone I knew died in a boating accident, I’d totally be sad, but I’d also think, “Well this is why I don’t go on boats.” It's like how they talk about the two stages of grief: feeling sad for a few minutes, and then reaffirming your own choices in life. That's it.
Hey let’s talk some more about boats. In my view, there are two natural things about which human beings should be wary, if not adversarial. Those two things are animals and bodies of water. (My morbid fascination with the movie Jaws is thus understandable, as it combines the two things.) I’ve written extensively about animals on the blog: namely, how most of them are dumb and mean and secretly want to kill all humans. (At the time of this writing, they still haven't found that Bronx Zoo cobra. My feet have scarcely touched the ground all day long.) It hasn’t stopped people from inviting them to LIVE IN THEIR HOMES, like ACTUAL PEOPLE. My warnings about the water have similarly gone unheeded. It’s not just me, though: there are dozens of films about bad stuff happening to people in the water: Open Water, Titanic, Deep Blue Sea, What Lies Beneath, The Sharktopus, etc. I know none of you will listen, but srsly: it’s almost summer, people. Be vigilant.
To be fair, the movie isn’t strictly about the boating accident, but rather its aftermath. I can relate to this. A few weeks ago, I was on a plane that experienced moderate turbulence. I'm still living with that.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Beth, Calvin, and their son Conrad are living in the aftermath of the death of the other son. Conrad is overcome by grief and misplaced guilt to the extent of a suicide attempt. He is in therapy. Beth had always preferred his brother and is having difficulty being supportive to Conrad. Calvin is trapped between the two trying to hold the family together.” [Editor’s Note: This plot summary is very ESL.]
What I thought about the movie: It was very good. Often really really good. But in the end not really great, I think. We’ll get to it. It’s very SERIOUS, but straightforward and generally not maudlin or mawkish or other words that sound like that. Known dreamboat Robert Redford does a fine job directing, and the actors are all great, especially known Groupon shill Timothy Hutton. For most of the movie it seems really honest and real, like a true depiction of so-called ordinary people who each react to a terrible tragedy very differently.
A somewhat controversial element of the movie (at the time of its release) was its depiction of the psychiatrist who helps Hutton, played by Judd Hirsch. While I suppose there is still some backlash against psychiatry from the Scientology crowd, today it has a degree of mainstream acceptance that was widely lacking in 1980, and thus the fact that the movie’s portrayal of the psychiatrist was so positive turned some heads. I suppose it's good that the movie helped usher in a more accepting atmosphere of psychiatry, but I can't help but feel a little off about it. I remember reading a critical response to Good Will Hunting (a movie that I love) by a psychiatrist who found the film unrealistic (particularly this scene, which I also love). I thought about that while watching this movie. While it’s hard to imagine what a realistic cinematic depiction of a relationship between psychiatrist and patient would look like (not least because I’ve never been to a psychiatrist), I’d imagine it would be far too boring and long to put in a movie. And also that it wouldn't really involve dramatic, hug-inducing breakthroughs. In a movie that was particularly impressive because of how understated and realistic it was, the emotional breakthrough that occurs between Hutton and Hirsch late in the film was jarring.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: The other weird thing in the movie is how mean Mary Tyler Moore was. Maybe I felt this way because my mom is cool (HI MOM), but still: the fact that she feels like the brother’s death is Timothy Hutton’s fault, and really does nothing to hide that fact at all throughout the movie was really off-putting when compared to the subtle complexity of the other characters. Granted, she’s supposed to be a less communicative, more private person, I get that. And maybe I’m not appropriately viewing this movie as a relic of an era where people didn’t talk about their feelings as much as they do now. But c’mon now. It’s your own son! Be nice! He didn’t mean it! That kind of took me out of it.
Here’s something not really related to the film that bothered me: the Wikipedia entry about this movie features a lengthy plot summary that is totally judgey. I think it’s designed that way to try to bring out the mother’s side of the story, but I didn’t agree with a lot of it. Wikipedia’s supposed to be unbiased, right? If I wanted a judgey version, I’d have fired up Conservapedia. (Remember Conservapedia? I just looked through it for a while and it’s one of the worst things ever. The entry on homosexuality is both abhorrent and hilarious at the same time, featuring sections on the Biblical passages condemning homosexuality, the dubious studies that “prove” homosexuality is a choice, and one section entitled “2006 Survey Finds Homosexual Men Seek to Become Ex-homosexuals Often Do So to Heal Emotional Pain or For Spiritual Reasons.” Yes, that’s a headline. The entry is over 20,000 words long! They're obsessed! It’s like in elementary school, when you're mean to some girl in the sandbox because you secretly like her and want to gay-marry her. I don’t know what happened to that analogy.)
How I felt after the movie ended: Where was I? Oh yeah stupid Wikipedia nonsense. Whatever. The point of all this is, the Timothy Hutton and Donald Sutherland stuff, and most of the Judd Hirsch stuff, was all really good and relatable. It reminded me a lot of Rabbit Hole: how everyone grieves in their own way, and how hard it is to just make the people around you happy when there’s so much sadness weighing everything down. It also explores the difficulty of doing that when the prevailing wisdom is that keeping everything private and repressed is the only way you can deal with your issues. But the scenes with Mary Tyler Moore reminded me of Precious, almost. She’s not nearly as monstrous/fat as Mo’Nique, but I just couldn’t find any sympathy for her at all.
So in the end I was a little annoyed. The ending (which isn’t something that can really be spoiled) just isn’t as perceptive and smart and good as the rest of the movie. It kind of devolves into speechifying and overdramatic stuff, and that's totally not what the first hour and a half was all about. I still think it was worth seeing, but I guess you could say the ending was kind of ordinary, people! Amirite? No? Eh.