Wed. Oct 21st, 2020

Worst Picture/Best Picture Series: Can’t Stop the Music and Ordinary People (1980)


“A powerfully intimate domestic drama, “Ordinary People” represents the height of craftsmanship across the board.” – Todd McCarthy, Variety

And now we come to the other film of the year, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. After watching the grand spectacle that is Can’t Stop the Music, the Sundance Kid had big sequins shoes to fill. Well, it was not was I had hoped for.

Like Can’t Stop the Music, Ordinary People begins with a song playing over images of the city. However, unlike the earlier film, our protagonist Conrad Jarrett (played by Timothy Hutton in his Oscar winning debut) is not parading in his roller-skates. Instead we see him in a choir singing “Canon in D Major” by Johann Pachelbel. It was okay, but it’s no “Song of the City”. And couldn’t the choir have at least put some effort into their performance and worn some matching outfits? They obviously won’t be getting a record deal anytime soon.


We meet Conrad’s parents Calvin and Beth (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) who seem like a typical couple. They go to plays, play golf, and attend dinner parties (though the parties lack dancing Indians and leathermen). At first glance the Jarretts seems like an everyday family. However, it is soon revealed that they are dealing with a recent tragedy. The eldest son Buck drowned recently and shortly after Conrad attempted suicide. Trying to return to a normal life, Conrad starts visiting psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) hoping to cure his depression.


Along with choir, Conrad is also a member of the swim team. Even though he participates in these recreational activities, he always looks quiet and sad. Perhaps one cure would be if he combined choir and swimming and have him and his fellow speedo-clad teammates sing and dance together at the pool. After all, there’s no need to be unhappy, young man. While talking to his swim coach (played by M. Emmet Walsh, wearing very short shorts, he could have auditioned for the Village People), we discover that after his suicide attempt, Conrad was at a psychiatric hospital and received shock therapy.



Gradually we see that Conrad and Beth have become quite distant. It becomes clear early on that Buck was beloved by everyone and was Beth’s favorite. With his death, Beth has trouble showing all of her lost affection onto her only son. Similarly, it seems Calvin and Beth are growing apart. He starts noticing Beth’s difficulty in showing love to Conrad and doesn’t know how to approach her about it.

Meeting up with his friend Karen, a fellow hospital patient, they hang out and talk. He tells her that he’s on the swim team though planning on quitting and that he kind of misses the hospital. She on the other hand seems to be in high spirits and excited to be free of the place.

One day at school, Conrad bumps into fellow choir member Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). After hanging out with Jeannine, Conrad starts to feel a bit happier. He strolls home singing “Hallelujah” to himself. He’s obviously starting to realize that all it takes is a little music and dancing to brighten your day. But the happiness doesn’t last long because Beth discovers Conrad quit the swim team and confronts him about it. A giant fight breaks out amongst the family with Calvin trying to moderate it and end the war of words. As Conrad storms up to his bedroom, Calvin follows, hoping to clear the argument. Conrad yells at him, “everything is jello and pudding with you, dad”, perhaps referencing Leonard Part 6 himself, Bill Cosby.

Conrad and Jeannine go out on a date with dinner and bowling. Jeannine is a pretty poor bowler, she clearly isn’t a regular at the YWCA. While having a romantic meal at McDonalds, Conrad opens up to Jeannine about his suicide attempt. But in the middle of his moment, the couple is interrupted by a group of rowdy classmates who storm the restaurant. I got excited for a moment because guys were singing when they entered and one of them was wearing a cowboy hat. I was hoping they would all dance up to the counter and order a round of milkshakes, but alas, all they did was sing the McDonald’s jingle and make Jeannine laugh while Conrad watches, feeling unloved.



Things really start to come apart when Conrad gets in a fight with his friends. Feeling all alone, he tries to get a hold of Karen only to discover that she just killed herself. With shortness of breath and a panic attack, we finally see a vivid flashback of Buck’s death. In a heavy storm on the water, Buck and Conrad struggle to stay with their toppled sailboat. Though Conrad hangs on, Buck loses his grip and drowns, shattering his chances of ever being in the navy. If only they had watched All is Lost, maybe they could have picked up some tips on how to survive at sea.


Desperately needing answers, Conrad finds help in Dr. Berger. After a very emotional breakdown, Conrad realizes that he’s not the one to blame, that he shouldn’t regret staying with the boat while Buck let go. This revelation is the start of his acceptance and return to normalcy.

Meanwhile, on vacation in Texas, Calvin and Beth start to make their own discoveries. Having a casual conversation about future vacation plans, Calvin casually mentions Conrad’s name and Beth gets furious. During the silent plane trip home, Calvin glances at Beth and we see of a flashback of them dancing together and having fun. It looks like a scene out of Can’t Stop the Music with disco lighting and dancing, how couldn’t you have fun?


Back at home, Calvin confronts Beth one last time, revealing that he fears he has fallen out of love with her. He claims that after Buck died she lost all the love she was able to show anyone. Without saying anything, Beth leaves and returns to Houston to stay with her relatives. Now only with each other, Conrad and Calvin are left to deal with the pain and somehow start anew.


[author image=”” ]Jeff spends too much time watching movies, but when he’s not watching them, he helps make them by working in the grip and electric department. Some would say he chose this profession because of the thrill of being on set and helping create art, but the real reason is most G&E don’t need to wear pants. Along with being a film nerd, Jeff enjoys riding his bike everywhere around the Southern California and watching his friends perform improv. [/author]

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