Tag Archives: Timothy Hutton

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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Q & A (1990, Sidney Lumet)

Sidney Lumet’s awkward examination of political corruption and race in New York City hits some bumps it shouldn’t. One of the major problems–because the film, after all the minor problems, only has two major problems–is the ending. Lumet has a perfectly well-intentioned ending, but he doesn’t quite get it. There’s not enough groundwork for it in the film itself, just a few scenes and they really don’t add up to what the ending needs. The second major problem is the music by Rubén Blades. Not the score, the score is actually all right. But Blades–and Lumet, because I don’t see Blades listed as the producer or the executive–has a theme song for Q & A. Not surprisingly (the score is actually rather sparse and well-used throughout, mostly Lumet relies on a beautiful sound design, wind, rain and traffic), there’s no soundtrack release, but if there had been, I really think it would have been listed as “Don’t Double-Cross the Ones You Love (Theme to Q & A).” It’s a dreadful mistake.

The minor mistakes thrive. While Nick Nolte gives a scary performance as a dirty, bigoted cop, all he’s doing is giving a performance as a dirty, bigoted cop. He put on a bunch of weight for the role, but the weight doesn’t act for him. Timothy Hutton’s pretty good as a wide-eyed idealist, even maintains a hint of an Irish accent throughout, but the movie’s not enough about him. It starts about him, then it splits between Nolte and Armand Assante. Whereas Hutton and Assante make an interesting juxtaposition (with Jenny Lumet forming a love triangle), because of all the energy put into following Nolte, the juxtaposition never comes through. It gets hinted at, but never explored.

Assante’s performance is fantastic, the kind of flashy but substantive performance he should get credit for achieving. As a director’s daughter acting in a mob movie, Lumet does a really good job. Her character’s a lot more complicated than the movie ever gets around to examining, another mistake. The supporting cast is all excellent. Charles S. Dutton and Luis Guzmán, both great and they work beautifully together. But they get left out when the movie balloons too. As elder statesmen of varying morality but similar weariness, both Patrick O’Neal and Lee Richardson are good.

Lumet lets Q & A get way too big without ever making it absorbing. It’s a 132 minutes and it feels like them. It’s never mundane, it’s never boring, but the lack of a central protagonist and the mishmash of theses encourage detachment in the viewer, which is rather unfortunate. Q & A has all the ingredients for excellence and it’s very good; the missteps–particularly not getting the ending just right–hurt it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Lumet, based on the novel by Edwin Torres; director of photography, Andrzej Bartkowiak; edited by Richard Cirincione; music by Ruben Blades; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Arnon Milchan and Burtt Harris; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Nick Nolte (Brennan), Timothy Hutton (Al Reilly), Armand Assante (Bobby Tex), Patrick O’Neal (Kevin Quinn), Lee Richardson (Leo Bloomenfeld), Luis Guzmán (Valentin), Charles S. Dutton (Chappie), Jenny Lumet (Nancy), Paul Calderon (Roger Montalvo), International Chrysis (José Malpica), Dominic Chianese (Larry Pesch), Leonardo Cimino (Nick Petrone) and Fyvush Finkel (Preston Pearlstein).


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