Paramount // 1980 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // August 24th, 2001
Everything in its proper place...except the past.
Robert Redford didn't have a lot to prove by 1980. He was already an accomplished actor who had appeared in such hits as Barefoot in the Park, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Great Gatsby. On top of that, Redford had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1974 for his work in The Sting. Even so, Redford was apparently ready to do some stretching in the athletic field of Hollywood. Redford decided to go into directing, and with his first gig won an Oscar for his direction with the family drama Ordinary People. Ordinary People went on to snatch up three more Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. Starring Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H), Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (The Falcon and the Snowman), and in a surprise turn as a frigid mother, Mary Tyler Moore (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Ordinary People went on to garner many Oscar nominations and awards. Based on the novel by Judith Guest, Paramount brings Ordinary People to DVD in a very bare-bones edition.
The Jarrett family lives in a beautiful house in a middle-to-upper class neighborhood in suburban Illinois. They could easily be the picturesque American family...until a family tragedy threatens to tear them apart.
When we first meet the Jarrett family they seem to be doing okay, if not great. Calvin (Sutherland) Jarrett is a loving father who is well meaning, if not a bit soft. Beth (Moore) is a cold, aloof woman who seems sadly distant. Their teenage son Conrad (Hutton) looks as if carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Conrad has reason to feel this way; during a boating trip a few months ago, Conrad's older brother Buck drowned during a storm. After the accident, Conrad tried to kill himself. Sent to a mental hospital for four months, Conrad is now out and seemingly doing better.
Because of this tragedy the Jarrett family has unresolved conflict and resentment flowing underneath its surface. Beth is distant and cold to Conrad, unable to show him the type of motherly love he needs and desires. Calvin attempts to keep the atmosphere light and talkative, but finds walls thrown up by both Conrad and Beth. Conrad's only source of help comes in the form of Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch, TV's Taxi), a supportive therapist out to help Conrad come to terms with his life, his family and his past.
If you haven't seen Ordinary People, my description may make the plot sound relatively simple, and in fact, it is. The title of the film might also have been called "Ordinary Story," for this is not a very complex plot. Instead, the complexity lies within the relationships between the three Jarrett family members. These are people who have never worked through their pain and loss. The parts are expertly acted, as you can see the hidden pain and devastation registering on their faces scene after scene. Those looking for intricate plot devices are apt to look elsewhere -- Ordinary People focuses more on character than on the story (which spans a year in the life of the Jarrett family).
A movie like Ordinary People relies solely on its acting. Though the story is important (Ordinary People won writer Alvin Sargent an Oscar for his script from Guest's novel), it is ultimately not what drives the picture -- it is the actors. Redford must have done something right as a director, as all three leads give more than winning performances. Timothy Hutton won a Best Supporting Actor award for Conrad, a kid who is living with more guilt and pain than any teenager should face. Conrad was aboard the boat when Buck drowned, and he travels with the guilt of letting him slip through his fingers. Hutton's performance balances painful observation with frustration well; we almost feel what it's like to be in Conrad's shoes. His strained relationship with his parents (and especially his mother) is something he can't understand, and as the movie unfolds, his discoveries become ours as well. Hutton was deserving of his Oscar award, proving once again that the Academy loves a painfully wrought performance.
Both Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland are exceptional as Conrad's burdened parents. Through the loss of their child, Calvin and Beth have managed to deal with their pain in very different ways. Calvin wants more than anything to have open lines of communication running through his family again. Beth has closed down, or as Calvin puts it, "all her love died and was buried with Buck." She is cold, full of contempt for the cracked life she is now forced to lead. Even with her husband struggling to show her affectionate love Beth is unable to rekindle the fire she once had for life. Before Ordinary People, Mary Tyler Moore was thought of as only a comedic actress. As I was watching an "A&E Biography" about Moore, there was an interview with director Redford reciting a story about seeing Moore walking pensively on a beach. He kept that image with him years later when he was casting Ordinary People, and with that thought still in his head asked Moore to play the broken Beth. Redford made a smart decision for Moore proved that she is not only an able comedienne but also a gifted dramatic actress (as was evidenced with her Oscar nomination). Sutherland is effectively low-key as Calvin, a man who remembers how his family was and desperately wants it back. Through the years I've seen more and more films starring Sutherland, and each time I am more impressed than that last with his performances. Though not nominated for an Oscar, Sutherland is in fine form her as he's being torn apart the aftershocks of his families tragedy. In the supporting role as Dr. Berger, Judd Hirsch is both funny and strong as the doctor trying to pull Conrad's feelings out into the open. I'm not so sure many therapists chain-smoke as much during their sessions nowadays, but I guess things were a bit different back in 1980.
Ordinary People is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Since Ordinary People is over 20 years old, I am going to take that into account. Otherwise, Ordinary People is not the best looking transfer Paramount has released. The picture often looks flat and dull. Though colors are often bright, the picture sometimes suffers from an almost fuzzy feel. Blacks were usually solid, and only a slight amount of edge enhancement was spotted. This transfer is just barely passable, though maybe it was the best Paramount could do with the source material.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono, and is about as impressive as the video portions of the disc. However, this is not a sound effects based film, so the Dolby 1.0 track does the job that is needed. Dialogue and effects (what there are of them) are all generally clear. There was a small amount of hiss present, though with the age it's to be expected. Marvin Hamlisch's adapted music score is also clearly mixed, though very sparse. Also included is a French Dolby Mono 1.0 track as well as English subtitles.
For a film that won four Oscars and was nominated for many more, Ordinary People is surprisingly void of any extra material. The only supplement Paramount has seen fit to put on this disc is an anamorphic theatrical trailer.
Though Ordinary People is a very well crafted movie, a few of the scenes don't ring quite as true today as they might have years ago. Scenes involving Conrad and his swim coach (M. Emmett Walsh) seem unrealistic and stale. Otherwise, I can highly recommend this moving drama for anyone who is looking for in-depth characterization.
A lack of any extra material is a shame for such a highly praised film. Certainly a commentary track by its stars or director would have added extra insight into the production of the film. It's highly unlikely we'll be seeing a "special edition" of Ordinary People anytime soon.
At around $25 bucks, Ordinary People is a bit steep for what you're getting. Though I can easily say it's worth seeing, I would advise this as a rental first before you decide to buy the disc. Robert Redford's directing is top notch and the actors are stellar. This is one of Mary Tyler Moore's best performances...well, right next to that "Mary and Rhoda" TV movie.
Ordinary People the movie is free to go. Paramount is fined for supplying the viewer with an extra feature that has all the excitement of molded cheese.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer