Robert Redford makes an auspicious, if conventional, directing debut in "Ordinary People," an earnest, engrossing, faithfully shallow movie version of Judith Guest's best seller about the breakup of an upper-middle-class family.
Given the source material, the film is as good as respectful adaptation could make it: a high-class soap opera, compulsively watchable despite a quality of insight eventually exposed as trite and dubious in the extreme.
Opening today at area theaters, the film depicts the Jaretts -- Mary Tyler Moore as mother Beth, Donald Sutherland as father Cal and the riveting young actor Timothy Hutton as their emotionally disturbed teen-age son, Conrad -- in the wake of tragic circumstances.
It's obvious that something is responsible for Conrad's unhappiness and for the tension in the Jarretts' elegant home in Lake Forest, an exclusive suburb of Chicago. The source of the distress is initially mysterious, but as it is methodically clarified, the Jaarretts' crisis assumes the familiar shape of a melodramatic crock, derived not so much from painful experience as recycled but entertaining cliche.
The atmosphere reverberates with echoes from "East of Eden," "David and Lisa," "A Separate Peace," miscellaneous Ingmar Bergman films, Woody Allen's "Interiors" and a generation of teleplays in which sensitive youth went starved for parental love.
We discover that Conrad has recently returned to school after an extended absence. As the scenes with his parents and classmates accumulate, the reason for his absence is revealed: He suffered a mental breakdown that provoked a suicide attempt. At the urging of his father, Conrad begins to attend sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. After a shaky start, they hit it off, and Conrad begins to confide in Berger, played by Judd Hirsch. Indeed, Berger's cluttered sanctuary becomes the haven of understanding that he's denied in his parents' immaculate home and his mother's icy presence.
Eventually, Conrad confronts the episode that scarred the family and led him to the brink of suicide: a boating accident in which his older brother Buck was killed.We also discover that Buck was Beth's favorite child, but this apparent key fails to unlock the secret of her animosity.
The Bergman influence seems to hover around Sutherland's performance in an oddly amusing way. Cal, a prosperous tax attorney whose dignified passivity makes him an ineffectual softie on the home front, suggests an Americanized version of a role conceived by Bergman for Max von Sydow.
The word "ordinary" seems inappropriate in connection with the Jarretts. Yet the family seems inteded to illustrate an extreme, cautionary case of emotional repression that Guest, Redford and screenwriter Alvin Sargent evidently associate with affluent WASPs. Perhaps overdoing it, the filmmakers envision Beth and Cal as such excessively neat, formal people -- and their home as so oppressive -- that one begins to think of the Jarretts as uniquely grotesque rather than poignantly representative.
Sustaining the atmosphere of stifling formality can lead to unintentionally funny effects. The sepulchral tone of the dinner table scenes in "Ordinary People" drove David Denby of New York magazine to the exasperated observation that "Upper-class American Protestants are apparently the only people on earth who cannot eat and talk at the same time."
The more one considers their situation, the more extraordinary and alien the Jarretts seem. Why does Beth withhold her affection and support from a son who desperately needs her? This crucial question is never adequately answered. Indeed, the strangest aspect of the novel, aggravated in the film, was Guest's reluctance or inability to explore the feelings and motives of such a remarkably hostile mother. Excluded from both the sympathy and psychological curiosity extended to Cal and Conrad, Beth emerges as the most enigmatic and unnatural of women.
What we conspicuously lack are scenes accounting for the nature and intensity of her feelings about her sons either before or after the tragedy. Her sense of loss is never seriously examined. As a result, there's no vital connection between the accident and her treatment of Conrad. On the basis of the available evidence, one is forced to conclude that Beth acts the way she does because she's fundamentaly a bitch.
Given this hateful emphasis, the casting of Mary Tyler Moore seems peculiarly perverse, Although Moore's performance is effective, it works in an underhanded way that you may resent. Like Meryl Streep's Mrs. Kramer, Moore's role systematically ignores the primacy and intensity of maternal emotions in order to celebrate the awakening of a heroic paternal love. "Ordinary People" is likely to become the most overrated American film since "Kramer vs. Kramer," partly because it's the logical follow-up: Mother may not give a damn, but Conrad is able to console himself with two deeply concerned father figures, Cal and Dr. Berger, not to mention his first steady girlfriend.
Although the material warns against rigid emotional control, equating neatness with repression and evasion, the movie has an exceedingly neat, careful, polished veneer. Not to a fault. On the contrary, Redford demonstrates that he's more capable and sensitive than 90 percent of the directors in the business. However, "Ordinary People" extols the healthiness of emotional candor and spontaneity more by argument than example.
Tim Hutton's performance is the film's most plausible claims to distinction. To the extent that he nurtured and protected it, Redford deserves heartfelt thanks. Although the explanation for Conrad's shaky emotional state seems contrived, Hutton's acting never fails to arouse sympathy, and makes the character's anxiety vividly concrete.
Although Tim Hutton resembles his father -- actor James Hutton, who died earlier this year at the age of 42 after prolonged bout with lung cancer -- he more often recalls James Dean and Anthony Perkins in their first movie appearances. He grips you in the variety of ways -- with his eyes narrowed, lips set in a taut, oddly mournful frown, head tilted and spasmodic tics, he's a compelling, unpredictable bundle of nerves.
He makes such a strong emotional appeal that Beth's coldness seems all the more perplexing. In a way, the stilted aspects of the production enhance his performance: Every jangling fiber in this mixed-up kid seems to clash with his family and setting. You begin to wonder if Conrad might have been a foundling left on Beth and Cal's doorstep.
You can't take your eyes off Hutton, and fortunately for the movie he's rarely out of sight. Despite the sponginess of the content, Hutton's extraordinary film acting debut ought to assure his famous novice director a long, successful career behind the camera.