[box cover]

Ordinary People

When Ordinary People won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1980, there was minor outrage that this powerful-but-small family drama had trumped Martin Scorsese's brilliant Raging Bull for the honor. These many years later, debutante director Robert Redford's touching adaptation of Judith Guest's novel is all but forgotten, yet its themes and devices still figure prominently in the comparatively shallow award-winning films of subsequent decades. Ordinary People is a careful depiction of an upper-middle-class suburban family torn apart by dysfunction and tragedy, no doubt a precursor to the generously lauded — yet cartoony and sensationalistic — American Beauty. It's not possible to watch Mary Tyler Moore's heartbreaking performance as a controlling, remote mother and wife without wincing in remembrance of Annette Bening's ludicrous take on the same character, or to watch young Timothy Hutton struggle with his truly tragic circumstances without wondering what superficially beset Thora Birch was bitching about, or to empathize with Donald Sutherland's weak but compassionate fathering without categorizing Kevin Spacey's Lester Burns as a first class dumb schmuck. If Ordinary People was cast today, there's no doubt that Judd Hirsch's straight-faced performance as Hutton's psychiatrist Dr. Bennet would be supplanted by a smiling-but-teary-eyed Robin Williams, replacing Hirsch's oak-solid mix of reason and compassion with a geyser of sentimental sap, as he did for his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting. Watching Ordinary People today, it's not hard to find faults in its occasionally precious and intermittently forced melodrama. But given the film's sensitive tone, its restrained performances, its conservative milking of emotions, it is hard to not rue the shameful pap that passes for fine drama in its wake. The skills on display in Ordinary People are full of promise, with Redford displaying the confident and quiet style he would use to great, refreshing effect in his subsequent films as a director. Moore surprised many with her brilliant, and unlovable, dramatic performance, and Hutton's range as young actor raises questions about why he isn't one our leading adult actors today. One thing Ordinary People leaves in absolutely no doubt, is that Donald Sutherland is one of cinema's great acting treasures, always dependable to turn in an interesting, complex, and quirky performance, and in this film he gives one of his finest. Paramount's DVD release of Ordinary People offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in the original Dolby 2.0 mono. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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