Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Ordinary People (1980)
Studio Line: Paramount Home Entertainment - Everything is in it's proper place-except the past!

An extraordinary motion picture, Ordinary People is an intense examination of a family being torn apart by tension and tragedy. Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore star as the upper-middle-class couple whose "ordinary" existence is irrevocably shattered by the death of their oldest son in a boating accident. Timothy Hutton is the younger son, struggling against suicide and guilt left by the drowning. Judd Hirsch is the empathetic psychiatrist who provides his lifeline to survival. Mary Tyler Moore gives a riveting portrayal of the inexplicably aloof mother. Robert Redford's achievement as director after more than twenty years as a superstar in front of the camera, earned him and Oscar®. Superb performances and masterful direction complement the award-winning screenplay, based upon the novel by Judith Guest.

Director: Robert Redford
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, M. Emmet Walsh
Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor-Timothy Hutton; Best Screenplay. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor-Judd Hirsch; Best Supporting Actress-Mary Tyler Moore. 1981.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Monaural, French Monaural; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 10 chapters; rated R; 124 min.; $29.99; street date 8/14/01.
Supplements: Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C/D-

No one should feel surprised that Martin Scorsese released no films in 2000. Based on his experiences during other decade-starting years, one can’t blame him if he felt a little gun-shy.

In 1990, Scorsese produced GoodFellas, a very well-received and successful drama about a mafia family. Although many - myself included - thought it was the year’s best film, it lost the Best Picture Academy Award to Dances With Wolves. That western came from Kevin Costner, a successful actor who made the transition behind the camera for Wolves, which was his first directorial effort.

In 1980, Scorsese produced Raging Bull, a very well-received and successful drama about a self-loathing boxer. Although many - myself not included - thought it was the year’s best film, it lost the Best Picture Academy Award to Ordinary People. That study of a quietly dysfunctional family came from Robert Redford, a successful actor who made the transition behind the camera for People, which was - you guessed it - his first directorial effort.

As it happened, any possible fears felt by Scorsese were unnecessary. The year’s Best Picture winner was Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, an old pro who has worked as a director for almost as long as Scorsese. Also, since Brad Pitt didn’t direct a movie in 2000, it looked like the coast was clear.

At this point, it seems unclear how history will view Scorsese’s losses. When both occurred, they felt unjust. However, many may argue that Wolves was the superior film. I strongly disagree with that notion; I feel that GoodFellas showed Scorsese at peak form, while Wolves was a competent and occasionally engaging piece that suffered from excessive moralizing. Nonetheless, the latter maintains a strong audience, and the American Film Institute apparently thought Wolves was the better of the two movies. On their list of the 100 Greatest Movies, Wolves merited the 75th spot, while GoodFellas ended up with 94th place.

On the other hand, Bull continues to receive much more acclaim than does People. Indeed, the AFI list put it at 24th, which was the highest slot received by any film from the Eighties; it just nudged out 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. However, People appeared nowhere on the chart. People was on the list of 400 nominated flicks, but we don’t know if it made it to 101st or 400th on the ratings.

In my opinion, neither Bull nor People ever did much for me. Bull remains a piece that I respect more than I like. I appreciated the artistry behind it, but I thought it left me cold.

As for People, prior to my receipt of this DVD, I hadn’t seen it in quite some time. Actually, I’m not terribly sure I ever watched the film, though I believe I must have taken it in during a TV showing or a video rental back in the mid-Eighties. In any case, my memories of the flick remained quite stale, though I maintained a generally negative attitude toward it before I checked out the DVD.

Ordinary People follows the issues of the Jarrett family. As the film starts, we gradually learn that son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) recently returned from a stay in a psychiatric hospital. He tried to kill himself after the death of his much-revered older brother Buck, a character whose demise continues to leave a pall over the house. Although they never seem to have been terribly close, the situation further comes between Connie and mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), a chilly and controlling woman who became even less open after Buck’s death. In between, father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) seems to sense the gulf between the two, but he appears unaware of ways in which he can affect the frayed relationship.

Connie continues to feel depressed and suicidal, and he eventually enters a therapeutic situation with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). After a time, this seems to help him get a better grip on his issues, but the rift between him and his mother remains, and all the family members must confront themselves and each other to deal with their stresses.

That plot rarely rises above the level of melodramatic TV movie status, but People has a number of elements that help it succeed. Prime among these is the acting. All three of the principals are outstanding in their roles, and I felt special attention should go to Moore. Cold and domineering Beth was a serious departure for the former “America’s sweetheart”, and Moore played the part for all it was worth. After so many years on TV, I would have thought that she would be unable to resist temptations to warm up Beth in some ways, but she never submits to those ideas. Moore makes the character very consistent and logical in her own little way. Beth seems generally unlikable but oddly sympathetic, as Moore makes her outwardly unresponsive to issues but still shows her as realistically detached and flawed.

Sutherland also displays Calvin’s conflicts with aplomb. The father has to walk a tightrope between father and mother, and Sutherland does this with effectiveness but he never makes Calvin mushy or wimpy. Yes, we’d like to see him take more of a stand, but the character’s internal consistency won’t allow much of that, and Sutherland gives him a believability that works.

Hutton earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Connie, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the son is the showiest role in the film. Moore and Sutherland have to remain much more low-key throughout the piece, while Hutton gets to display lots of mood swings, fits and other stimulating moments. Really, the designation of “Supporting Actor” seems incorrect, as I felt Connie was the film’s lead and its main emphasis.

Overall, Hutton really was quite good in the part. I admit I preferred Moore and Sutherland, but that’s because I feel more respect toward actors who take on the less flashy roles; it’s much tougher to stand out in such plain parts. Nonetheless, that doesn’t denigrate Hutton’s work, as he makes Connie convincingly flawed and distraught without excessive melodrama or scenery chewing.

First-time director Redford does little to make the film stand out from the crowd, though I liked the understated manner in which he tells the story. People always offers a very low-key affair, and it almost never goes for cheap emotion. I respected that and thought it worked well for the material, and I also liked the fact that People avoided too many easy answers. Some parts of it were a little too convenient and simple, but it omitted a traditionally happy ending and it stayed reasonably true to its subjects.

My main complaint with People occurs because I feel it lacks much depth or insight. Although the past haunts the characters, the movie itself remains far too strongly in the present. Other than the harrowing death of Buck, we see little of the prior lives of the Jarretts, so we don’t learn much about how they came to be who they are. Since the emphasis remains so strongly on Connie, his parents especially suffer in that regard. Additional examination of their issues would have added dimensionality to the piece.

Nonetheless, Ordinary People offers a reasonably solid dramatic experience. Did it deserve a Best Picture award? Probably not, but the film doesn’t embarrass the Academy. The movie sputters at times, but fine acting from its principals helps make it a success.

As a side note, Ordinary People represents something of an oddity among Best Picture winners: it took place in then-contemporary times. Oscar always preferred period pieces of some sort, and that tendency has grown over the years. During the Eighties, three such films took home the big prize; in addition to People, we also had 1983’s Terms of Endearment and 1988’s Rain Man. This was a drop after the record of the Seventies, when five contemporary flicks won the big Oscar: 1971’s The French Connection, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1976’s Rocky, 1977’s Annie Hall and 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer.

However, matters would decline further during the Nineties. In that decade, only 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and 1999’s American Beauty won Oscars for material that resided in the then-current time period. I don’t know what the new millennium will bring, but Gladiator certainly starts this decade with a retro bang.

The DVD:

Ordinary People appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the DVD offered a rather drab and flat picture that usually seemed watchable but no better.

Sharpness generally looked adequately distinct, but much of the movie appeared somewhat soft and ill-defined. I didn’t feel that the movie looked terribly unfocused, but a general fuzziness often occurred that left the image vaguely unclear. No significant examples of moiré effects or jagged edges appeared, but I did witness some instances of edge enhancement, a print flaws were a modest concern. Light grain manifested itself during a number of scenes, and I also occasionally witnessed speckles, grit, and general debris. This wasn’t an extraordinarily dirty picture, but it seemed to be less clean than I’d expect.

No one should feel surprised to learn that a low-key drama like People offered a muted palette, but I still thought the colors looked more drab and faded than they should. The film featured a generally brownish tone, and this left all of the hues as muddled and lackluster. Granted, exceptionally vivid colors would have seemed out of place, but the dinginess of the hues appeared excessive. Black levels came across as similarly thin, and shadow detail displayed some problems. Actually, the latter aspect was erratic. Some scenes - such as a bedroom chat between Sutherland and Moore as well as some office shots - provided surprisingly well-defined low-light shots, but others were murkier. Some of the concerns seemed to relate to artistic choices, while others appeared to result from the era’s film stocks, but I still felt that Ordinary People looked surprisingly bland.

Similarly lackluster was the monaural soundtrack of Ordinary People, though its flat qualities seemed less surprising. People offered a very chatty experience, and dialogue strongly dominated the film. Music appeared occasionally but infrequently, and effects usually remained subdued; a few scenes - such as the ones on the capsized boat - became louder, but the vast majority of the movie stuck with minor ambience.

Audio quality appeared thin but acceptable. Midrange seemed most prevalent, as highs were somewhat flat and bass response appeared exceedingly minor. Speech came across as trebly and tinny but clearly intelligible and without signs of edginess. Effects were also less-than-distinct but they represented their objects adequately and lacked significant distortion. In regard to the music, the film’s famous use of Pachelbel’s “Canon” seemed rather muted and wan, but it fit in with the rest of the package. Ultimately, the audio lacked any serious flaws, but it seemed very bland and uninvolving nonetheless.

Lastly, Ordinary People almost totally omits any extras. We find the film’s theatrical trailer but nothing else. This feels especially disappointing because earlier indications seemed to relate that the DVD would include an audio commentary from director Redford. In fact, the release was delayed for a few months, allegedly due to this issue. The bare-bones nature of the DVD then becomes especially sad.

As a film, Ordinary People doesn’t seem spectacular, but it works fairly well despite some TV movie sentiments. Largely this occurs because of its talented cast; they elevate the material above its potential. Unfortunately, the DVD is a relentlessly drab affair. It provides bland picture and sound plus virtually no extras. Ordinary People merits a rental from Oscar completists and fans of this kind of personal drama, but with a list price of $29.99, it’s far too expensive and drab to warrant a purchase.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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