The Bottom Line
In this Oscar-winning low-key coming of age psychodrama, 17-year-old Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) learns to deal with grief, guilt, and forgiveness after the untimely death of his older brother, while his parents (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) attempt to move on with their own lives, with mixed results.
The Rest of the Story
CONRAD: You're a doctor, isn't this supposed to make things better?
DR. BERGER: Not necessarily.
The film opens with shots of a quiet suburb of Chicago as the leaves begin to brown. We learn that our protagonist, Conrad Jarrett, has not been sleeping well, and his father is coaxing him into seeing a doctor of some sort. Soon it's revealed that Conrad's older brother Buck died in a boating accident (more on this later) and that Conrad attempted suicide.
From here the film reveals itself in delightfully subtle ways, with Conrad's father Calvin (Sutherland) revealing his concern for his son's health by his overinsistency that his son is "doing great", and his mother Beth (Moore) showing a standoffish disconnect to her surviving son. When he idly mentions he made a 74 on a trigonometry quiz, she simply gives him the polite stare of a stranger acknowledging another, and vanishes into the confines of her bedroom.
Conrad begins meeting with the doctor (an astute Judd Hirsch), reluctantly at first, but finally with honesty and truth. He quits the swim team because his brother's memory lingers there, and when he hides this from his parents, his mother takes the opportunity to lash out at him for lying to them about it. At the same time, he reconvenes with an old friend (and possible girlfriend?) Karen from the psychiatric hospital he went to after his suicide; while he expects a warm walk down memory lane with her, she is obviously trying hard to forget the whole episode. As she leaves, she yells at Conrad, "Hey! Why don't you try to cheer up?" Taking her advice somewhat to heart, he makes overtures with Jeannine (McGovern), a pretty girl in his choir class. The two hit it off in classic awkward teenage style.
Meanwhile, Conrad's father begins visiting the psychiatrist as well, and finally comes to terms with his situation: his wife's selfishness and aloofness is destroying their whole family. When they visit her brother in Houston, his feelings well out of him, to which she responds with a sympathetic soliloquoy about her inability to be happy after Buck's death.
On a date with Jeannine, Conrad begins explaining why he tried to commit suicide and how he had felt, when he is interrupted by his old swim buddies, who steal the show with their clownish antics. Feeling ignored and distraught, Conrad pulls inside his invisible shell, and ends the date prematurely. Later, he runs into his former best friend - who had been on the boat with Buck and Conrad when the accident occurred. He rejects his overtures to talk, claiming, "It hurts to be around you because it reminds me of him." Then Conrad learns horrible news: Karen has killed herself. Despondent and alone, he calls the only friend he knows, Dr. Berger, who he meets at his office in the middle of the night.
The two finally have it out over what's bothering Conrad: that he can't forgive himself for not trying harder to save his brother, and he feels angry at his brother for putting them in the situation that led him to his death. (The flashbacks to the accident are so emotionally wrenching, I could hardly bear to watch, despite their lack of violence or special effects.)
Will Conrad finally come to terms with himself about his brother's death and his suicide? Will Beth ever be happy in her life? Will Calvin learn to accept the things he cannot change? You might be surprised at how the movie answers these questions. Such are the mysteries of ordinary people.
Forget the snide flippancy of American Beauty. Forget the ubermensch isolationism of Good Will Hunting. Forget the contrived circumstance of In The Bedroom. In the end, they all fall by the wayside compared to this, perhaps the greatest American suburban drama ever put to film.
For starters, Robert Redford's Oscar-winning direction is stunning. Here, all of the charm and grace that put Redford into the position to direct this movie simply melts away in the few opening shots of the changing leaves of autumn in a picture-perfect Chicago suburb. The linear storyline (based on the best-selling novel by Judith Guest, but adapted with vividness and spaciousness by Oscar recipient Alvin Sargent, who also wrote the sparse Paper Moon) gives the film a realistic timeline, but never before has such candor and openness been laid to cellulose. Redford makes careful use of the camera's depth; one poignant example is a scene where Conrad tries to talk to his mom, only to be interrupted by a telephone call. As Beth answers the phone in the foreground, the camera rack focuses on her, leaving Conrad a fuzzy blur in the distance. Compelling camerawork aside, Redford also moves swiftly from point to point, and covers all of the subplots with appropriate tenor and weight. After all, everyday life is somewhat discrete, a discontinuous flow of "events" which move us from place to place and hour to hour.
John Bailey's warm yet empty cinematography (seen to even greater effect in 1983's The Big Chill) fares well in the quiet house and in the lonely car rides the characters take - often with each other in tow. Marvin Hamlisch's original music is scattered throughout, but the film is dominated by Johann Pachelbel's "Canon in D", which simply offers a florid background to the bittersweet story of loss and recovery.
Elizabeth McGovern's minor role as Conrad's romantic interest plays out realistically, and she provides his escape hatch from his claustrophobic world with grace and sublimity. Judd Hirsch is letter-perfect as the nonjudgmental psychiatrist, the one who transcends his $50 an hour fee and gets to the bottom of lives. Donald Sutherland is appropriately bend-over-backwards as the father trying desperately to keep his fractured family together. And while Mary Tyler Moore may win a few too many brownie points for simply playing against her beloved TV characters of yesteryear, her performance as the stunningly hostile Beth Jarrett well deserved her Oscar nomination. The film even avoids the standard Hollywood misogynistic cliche and gives her a life of her own, allowing audiences to sympathize with her strained relationships with her son and husband. For all of these coups, casting director Penny Perry deserves the first Oscar for that category, if there ever should be one.
And yet none of those performances hold a candle to the life-affirming, challenging, candid, and honest performance by Timothy Hutton. Only 19 when the movie was shot, it was his very first major motion picture, and he simply stole the show (he even won the Best Supporting Actor award despite being the lead - though he faced heady competition in Robert DeNiro's Jake Lamotta.) It is nothing short of a tour de force, watching him maneuver his way slowly into the good doctor's office, his desire to be self-reliant colliding with his anguish and guilt. His onscreen mannerisms and idiosyncracies breathe life into an already compelling character sketch. And every time he shuts the door on someone, as you the viewer watch his eyes glaze over with ennui and sadness, your heart goes out to him. How many times did I see him onscreen and long to give him a big hug? He is never too self-piteous, always looking for a way out of his misery, grasping on to the things that work, letting go of the ones that don't. When at the climax of the film he tells the doctor, "I held on," there shouldn't be a dry eye in the house. Where have you gone, Conrad Jarrett? I secretly hope your heart's still beating.
It's hardly a surprise this film won Best Picture: it beat out the more stylized The Elephant Man, the feel good bio pic Coal Miner's Daughter, the jagged Raging Bull, and the obligatory Polanksi nod Tess. What's surprising is how relevant its psychoses and neuroses are 25 years after its filming. It is simply a cut above the rest, no longer a movie, but a film, and a real one at that. The swirling philosophies on dealing with death amalgamate into a cohesive, heart-churning classic. And in the end, this is not a movie about supermen or bucking the system; it's just one about ordinary people, in search of the ordinary lives they once had.
My Rating: 10 out of 10. Go see it, and marvel at the age of the melodrama. And then call everyone you love and remind them.
Judith Guest (novel
Donald Sutherland .... Calvin 'Cal' Jarrett
Mary Tyler Moore .... Beth Jarrett
Judd Hirsch .... Dr. Tyrone C. Berger
Timothy Hutton .... Conrad 'Con' Jarrett
M. Emmet Walsh .... Coach Salan
Elizabeth McGovern .... Jeannine Pratt
Dinah Manoff .... Karen
Scott Doebler .... Jordan 'Buck' Jarrett