Thursday, November 6, 2014
The World According to Garp Movie Review
I have so many memories from my childhood of my mother watching The World According to Garp that I think there must have been a stretch of time when it was on TV nearly every day. I thought it a bizarre movie then and I find it a bizarre movie now. George Roy Hill directed this adaptation of John Irving’s novel, which I’ve never read. But I won’t let that prevent me from speculating on something I’d be willing to bet the book does that the movie fails to.
This was Robin Williams’ first dramatic feature film role He was soaring on the popularity of “Mork and Mindy” and made his film debut as Popeye in the Robert Altman live action adaptation of the comic strip. I revisited the film in honor of Williams’ memory and found that his dramatic performance, while quite good (and at the time I’m sure it struck most people as astounding given his comic background) isn’t nearly up to the level of some of his later acting. Part of that may be a problem of directorial tone. Hill rafted a light-weighted film based on episodes that have dramatic heft and terrible tragedy. The way it all has this feeling of magic, a kind of preciousness in the events that transpire and the way the characters respond just doesn’t gel. Williams seems at first a bit lost playing the young adult, college-aged version of T.S. Garp. He’s obviously too old for these scenes and this brings to his character a gee whiz naivete. He settles in well enough for the heavier lifting later in the film when he has to confront the murder of his mother and the fact that he’s barred from attending her memorial service due to his being a man. One particularly excellent piece of acting comes when he learns about his wife’s affair and has to manage his two young sons in a diner while he’s desperately trying to figure out how to handle this situation.
My guess is that Irving’s novel does a much better job at defining exactly what the world is like according to Garp. Hill’s film, adapted by Steve Tesich, feels awfully episodic, jumping from one big event to the next. This isn’t in itself a bad thing especially when adapting a sprawling novel, but how can it be titled The World According to Garp when we never get a real sense of how he uniquely views the world? He’s occasionally an oddball and his mother’s influence is glaringly apparent in everything from the way he mimics her warning about the ocean’s undertow to his own son to his sympathy for feminist causes, his mother Jenny Fields (Glenn Close in a stunning film debut) being a 60s icon for the movement after publishing a subversive memoir. It had to be difficult to squeeze so much into a movie that’s just beyond the two hour mark, but Tesich could have develop Garp’s inner life a little more.
In spite of a rather touching and humane performance from John Lithgow as Roberta, an ex-NFL star transsexual who resides at Jenny’s home for women damaged by men who becomes the sole emotional support for Garp in the toughest times, there is little to make an emotional connection to the movie. It’s full of drama, but bereft of pathos. Even the death of a child fails to move either the audience or his parents, including Garp’s wife Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), who sheds a little tear, agrees with Garp while reconciling their respective affairs that they miss little Walt, then decide to have another baby and move on. It feels so perfunctory and dismissive it’s as if the death of a child is being treated as just another experience in Garp’s odd life.
The World According to Garp fits well into George Roy Hill’s body of work, comprised of films that didn’t take themselves too seriously even when the subject matter was ripe for severity like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting. Those films bring levity to weightier subjects in a way that genuinely works. But here is a story with characters that have strong opinions on big issues such as feminism, marriage, fidelity, and independence, though without a very clear approach or strong opinion itself about those themes. It doesn’t even take the time to reveal what the characters feel deep down.
The whole film feels like it comes from a different era, even for the early 80s. In trying to imagine this story being adapted by a studio today, I feel certain it would adopt a tone of much greater melodrama, emphasizing the difficulties in Garp’s life rather than the oddities that helped shape who he is.