A powerfully intimate domestic drama, “Ordinary People” represents the height of craftsmanship across the board. Robert Redford, well-suited for Donald Sutherland’s role, stayed behind the camera to make a remarkably intelligent and assured directorial debut that is fully responsive to the mood and nuances of Alvin Sargent’s astute adaptation of Judith Guest’s best seller. Careful nurturing by Paramount should make this a solid b.o. performer through the fall season.
While not ultimately downbeat or despairing, tale of a disturbed boy’s precarious tightrope walk through his teens is played out with tremendous seriousness, thereby setting it apart from many other recent films trading in snideness and cynicism. Pic possesses a somber, hour of the wolf mood, with characters forced to definitively confront their own souls before fadeout.
Dilemma of the youth, who at first glimpse has recently attempted suicide in remorse for not having saved his older brother from drowning and thereafter proves a heavy burden for both himself and his normally complacent parents, may be too grim for some viewers, but total conviction in the story-telling and performances will grab many who have lived through their own variations on the domestic turmoil here portrayed.
Timothy Hutton, son of the late actor Jim Hutton, is up to the considerable demands of the central role. Unable to slide back into his old routine, he embarks upon a believably tentative romance with very cute schoolmate Elizabeth McGovern and begins seeing shrink Judd Hirsch. Psychiatric chit chat often reps a writer’s easy way out, explaining things when they should be dramatized, and while a couple of the sessions in pic’s middle go on a bit long, device for once seems valid in terms of story dynamics.
At the same time, things go from bad to worse at home. Hutton isn’t convinced his parents, who always favored the dead brother, truly care about him, and the tragedy of this suburban saga is that he might be right.
Sutherland tries to communicate and ultimately sees the falseness in his life in the process of coming to grips with his troubled son. On the other hand, Mary Tyler Moore, as the mother, has centered her life for too many years, on surface values and automatic avoidance of emotion to perhaps ever change, systematically rejecting any attempt to get to the heart of the matter.
Moore’s part is undoubtedly the most brilliantly written and observed, as her distress over her family’s deterioration is seen more as social concern over form and neighborhood acceptability than as result of deep feeling. Backing down from any intense probing, one senses that this woman could live her entire life without ever questioning its basic components.
It’s an actors’ picture, but in addition to his sensitive touch with the players Redford keenly evokes the darkly serene atmosphere of Chicago’s affluent North Shore and effectively portrays this WASP society’s prediliction for pretending everything is okay even when it’s not.
Aside from the curious note struck by design of Hirsch’s office, which seems a bit on the seedy side for chic Highland Park, tech contributions, from John Bailey’s subtle camerawork to Jeff Kanew’s precise editing to Marvin Hamlisch’s classical music adaptation, are all of a piece with Redford’s highly controlled, well-ordered approach.