Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 20, 2022)
No one should feel surprised that Martin Scorsese released no films in 2000. Based on his experiences during prior 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.
No wonder Scorsese avoided a 2000 release. At least he finally nabbed an Oscar in 2006 for The Departed.
As the film starts, we gradually learn that teenaged son Conrad “Connie” Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) recently returned from a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Connie tried to kill himself after the death of his much-revered older brother Buck (Scott Doebler), a young man whose demise continues to cast 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 feel special attention should go to Moore. Cold and domineering Beth offers a serious departure for the former “America’s sweetheart”, and Moore plays 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 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 must walk a tightrope between son 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. 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 becomes the showiest role in the film. Moore and Sutherland need 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 Connie forms the film’s lead and its main emphasis.
Overall, Hutton really seens quite good in the part. I admit I prefer Moore and Sutherland, but that’s because I feel more respect toward actors who take on the less flashy roles, as it’s 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 like the understated manner in which he tells the story. People always offers a low-key affair, and it almost never goes for cheap emotion.
I respect that and think it works well for the material. I also like the fact that People avoids too many easy answers. Some parts of it feel a little too convenient and simple, but it omits a traditionally happy ending and it stays 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 add 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.