There's a post-Freudian epigram--"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean nobody's following you" -- that puts "The World According to Garp" into perspective. The movie, faithful to John Irving's novel, if not to his narrative, views like a full-scale anxiety attack.
Watching it feels like waiting for your husband to drive home in a thunderstorm and telling yourself, relax, he'll be here any minute. And in your world, he would be. In Garp's, he'd have had a horrible accident and lost both legs.
Lots of parts get lost in "Garp," where the stream of consciousness flows in fits and starts. Episodic scenes shift through the quirky mind of T.S. Garp, but luckily star Robin Williams, familiar with alien intelligence, grasps him; Mork would have liked Garp.
The hero is the bastard of Jenny Fields, a lust-lacking nurse who rapes a mortally wounded tail gunner -- nothing's working but his libido -- to have a child without the bother of a husband. Glenn Close gives an incredible performance as Jenny, drawing sympathy for this prune of a woman, who takes a job at an elite prep school to pay for Garp's education.
The young Garp (James McCall) develops an early avarice for what so revolts Jenny. In his first sexual exploit, the twelvish Cushie (Jillian Ross) teaches him that first she says, "Not tonight, dear, I've got a headache"; then he rips off her clothes. When he rips, the family dog tears off his ear lobe.
His precarious childhood closes at the Fields' ancestral home at Dog's Head Harbor, when he wades into the sea. "Be careful of the undertow," Jenny shouts over surf. Later in life, Garp's young son will mishear the warning, as "Be careful of the Under Toad," the symbol of capricious doom that holds the film together.
Here, there's an abrupt shift of scene and Garp is a full-grown wrestler, who weds the coach's daughter Helen (Mary Beth Hurt) and later becomes a writer. His mother beats him to the press with her autobiography, "Sexual Suspect," which makes her guru of a feminist movement, peopled with mutes who have cut out their tongues in sympathy with a rape victim.
But Garp, despite praise from book reviewers, remains infamous for his lineage. So two fine children later, he becomes a house husband, while Helen, now a professor, becomes the lover of one of her students. (Under Toad enters.) Helen's affair crashes to a tragic climax in the Garps' driveway, where she is leaving her lover. He is castrated when Garp's car crashes into his car; Garp's younger son is killed and his other son loses an eye.
The dismembered Garp family heals with the help of close friend Roberta, a former Philadelphia Eagle who's had a sex change. Roberta, played with extraordinary sensitivity by John Lithgow, is easily the most well-adjusted individual in this menagerie. One can't help thinking that things would have worked out if she and Garp had married, but he stays with Helen. There's more death and anguish, all of it mixed with the obstinate optimism that characterizes Garp.
Williams, might have been more aggressive. Otherwise, director Roy Hill has done about as well as you can when translating word to image, not only through plot, but via the repetition of symbols: primitive, obvious ones -- the toad, a death's head costume, a child's clumsy drawings. After two hours and 20 minutes, all the parables and paradoxes join in a sluggish whole. And we wind up where we began, up in the air without a tail gunner. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP -- All area theaters.