A fine, upstanding American family collapses. The son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), feeling guilty about his brother’s death in a sailing accident, attempts suicide. He has returned from an extended hospital stay. His father (Donald Sutherland) is a reasonable man whose weak manner masks inner resources of strength. He is trying to cope with the death and the suicide attempt. Conrad’s mother (Mary Tyler Moore) refuses to cope with either. Unable to give or accept affection, she flashes swift microwave smiles to hide the terror that is forever with her. Ordinary People offers more than a few home truths about a place where there are no straight answers. Without much plot and paced like a game of solitaire, the movie assiduously clocks the time Conrad spends sorting himself out with the help of an adder-tongued, frank but caring psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch). Their sessions, painfully funny at first and later just plain painful, lead to Conrad’s discovery of all the anger bottled up inside him for years. The father
ties a tourniquet around his own tendency to sweep things under the rug; the mother, who has always thought of life as a perfect place setting for four, is horrified when confronted by her husband and son.
The revelation of Ordinary People for many will be Robert Redford’s debut as a director. He has taken Alvin Sargent’s
finely tuned adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel and charged it with conviction, with perhaps too much conviction in its belief in therapy. Except for some disastrously miscalculated flashbacks, it’s a fluidly, beautifully edited chamber piece with the right autumnal
coloring filtering through it. But his real talent lies in his work with actors: Hutton, Sutherland and Hirsch all do extraordinary work, playing off each other with ensemble precision.
The second revelation of Ordinary People, especially for those who missed her magnificent performance on Broadway in Whose Life Is It, Anyway ?, is Mary Tyler Moore. There isn’t a hair out of place in her portrayal of a domineering, terrified woman who needs to view a jagged episode in life as she does a broken piece of china—to say with relief, “It’s a nice clean break.” If this woman’s soul wore clothes, it would wear virgin wool sweaters; she’s a believable, recognizable monster and, as such, is quite touching. Ordinary People (baroque music and all) will probably move a lot of people in the same way as Kramer vs. Kramer did, concerned as it is with people we all know, or might well be. Lawrence O’Toole
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