Tag Archives: Mary Tyler Moore

Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)

Two really big things to talk about with Ordinary People. The technical filmmaking–John Bailey’s beautiful, muted photography, Jeff Kanew’s actually peerless editing, Redford’s direction in general–and then Timothy Hutton’s performance, his place in the film, Redford’s direction of Hutton in particular. I just as easily could’ve included the treatment of Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as Hutton’s parents in that list, but Ordinary People is a lot to talk about, a lot to think about and my ambitions are realistic here.

To start–Bailey’s photography, because it has the least to do with how the film needles the viewer. It’s gentle, but always realistic. Bailey’s very careful about the depth, the reality of the locations and how the characters interact with them. When Bailey does break–for a flashback, for instance–the reality has to break a little too. In some ways, the stylized flashbacks are more realistic because they’re from a character’s perspective. The rest of the film is objectively presented, with Bailey’s gently lush photography a comfort.

Redford needs the viewer comfortable, because he wants the viewer to pay attention. To think. There are no explosive scenes in Ordinary People. There are noisy scenes, but it’s not about the noise, it’s not even about how things get noisy. The noisy scenes are about what that noise does to people. But there are maybe three or four noisy scenes in the film. The rest of the time–most of the run time–Redford and editor Kanew are priming the viewer to pay attention.

Ordinary People changes gears in the third act, widening its ambitions. What starts as Hutton’s story becomes much bigger as Hutton is able to emerge from his shell. Hutton gives an exceptional performance, but Redford directs one too. Hutton is both the subject–how characters look at him instructs the viewer how to consider him–and the viewer’s entry into the film, always simultaneously. At the same time, the film isn’t reductive. It’s not a seventeen year-old’s look at his troubled family. It’s often about a seventeen year-old looking at his troubled family, but it’s about a lot more. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent deftly moves between plot lines. The film has this simple narrative structure; Sargent and Redford set it up, trust the viewer to remember it, move on with the film. Redford wants the viewer to get it. They make it brilliantly simple.

Great performances from all the main actors (Hutton, Sutherland, Moore, Judd Hirsch as Hutton’s therapist). Hirsch has the smallest part, but his contributions are essential. Much like Bailey’s photography, Hirsch–tied entirely to one setting–provides a comfort to the viewer, a familiar. Moore has the film’s most difficult role. Sutherland has some amazing moments. Very strong supporting turn from Elizabeth McGovern as Hutton’s love interest. M. Emmet Walsh is a complete asshole as Hutton’s coach, which is a compliment.

Anyway, Ordinary People is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Judith Guest; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Jeff Kanew; produced by Ronald L. Schwary; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Timothy Hutton (Conrad), Donald Sutherland (Calvin), Mary Tyler Moore (Beth), Judd Hirsch (Berger), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine), Dinah Manoff (Karen), James Sikking (Ray), Fredric Lehne (Lazenby) and M. Emmet Walsh (Salan).


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Flirting with Disaster (1996, David O. Russell)

The first forty-five minutes of Flirting with Disaster play like Woody Allen mixed with a 1990s Miramax indie, which makes sense, since Flirting is a 1990s Miramax indie. That first half is real strong comedy of errors, then Josh Brolin’s bi (but married to fellow ATF agent Richard Jenkins, who’s phenomenal) old friend starts hitting on Patricia Arquette (who’s playing Ben Stiller’s neglected wife, while Stiller lusts for Téa Leoni) and the whole thing becomes very… common. Everything gets wrapped up with a neat little bow and instead of being quirky–David O. Russell combines hand-held with these somewhat epical establishing shots. They might have been shot from a car, hand-held, but they’re still epical. And the sound editing in that first half is fantastic too.

So what happens to Flirting with Disaster? Apparently, Russell decided the whole thing couldn’t be about Leoni’s adoption agent leading Stiller on wild goose chase after wild goose chase for well-cast possible birth parents. When the film gets to Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, it speeds up. The pace had been a little hurried already, but then it’s all of a sudden over and it’s all a cop-out.

The film’s funny and the acting’s great. Only Brolin is weak. Leoni’s great, Arquette’s great in the first half, Stiller’s great until he has to wrap the film up with one apology… George Segal’s got some great moments with Mary Tyler Moore, but it’s all the script for them. Russell cast the film really well, but his script keeps a sense of artifice about the viewing experience, like he knew the audience wasn’t going to be able to get over Mary Tyler Moore flashing her bra either.

It’s sort of too bad and sort of not. At its best, Flirting with Disaster is a Woody Allen movie with acid (not on acid, with acid), at its worst, it’s an unaware Ganz-Mandel comedy with a quirky cast.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by David O. Russell; director of photography, Eric Edwards; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Stephen Endelman; production designer, Kevin Thompson; produced by Dean Silvers; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Ben Stiller (Mel Coplin), Patricia Arquette (Nancy Coplin), Téa Leoni (Tina Kalb), Mary Tyler Moore (Mrs. Coplin), George Segal (Mr. Coplin), Alan Alda (Richard Schlicting), Lily Tomlin (Mary Schlicting), Richard Jenkins (Paul), Celia Weston (Valerie Swaney) and Josh Brolin (Tony).


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