Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The World According to Garp

Grade : A+ Year : 1982 Director : George Roy Hill Running Time : 2hr 16min Genre : ,
Movie review score

I almost don’t know how to discuss this film. It’s one that I came to through the ’80s All Over podcast, but even their passionate discussion about the film, as well as Robin Williams, couldn’t quite prepare me for the impact the film would have on me, which was, honestly, unexpected.

Growing up, I have never quite had the love for Williams that other people in my generation had. Part of this might be because I came into a love of movies in the ’90s, and, by that point, he had been long established as a wacky comedic star, and, truthfully, a lot of his best work was behind him, but I never really had the urge to go back and discover his key ’80s films (like “Popeye,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and “Dead Poets Society”) for myself. “The World According to Garp” is probably the turning point in my relationship with Williams’s work, though, and I cannot wait to see where it leads me.

This is a big chunk of filmmaking and storytelling, and it’s a credit to director George Roy Hill and writer Steve Tesich (who adapted John Irving’s book) that the film lands like it does with me, and feels so naturally-flowing as it does. It’d be easy to simply say that the film tells the story of T.S. Garp, as played by Williams, but there’s so much more to it than that. Garp is the son of a nurse, played by the extraordinary Glenn Close, named Jenny Fields, and she’s an unconventional woman for her time (Garp is born in 1944). She is a real feminist, who had Garp out of wedlock, never married, and raised Garp on her own. She is someone who views lust as a disease, and this is a lesson she really works to instill in Garp (who starts to write in school, and will later become an author), especially after he seems to lose focus in a wrestling match when he locks eyes with his wrestling coach’s daughter, Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt). Garp and his mother move to New York, so that he can write, but, when they pass by prostitutes on the street, and Garp explains it to his mother, she gets to talking to one (Swoozie Kurtz), and she gets an idea for a book, as well. Her book, Sexual Suspect, becomes a feminist manifesto, and turns Jenny into an icon, while Garp becomes an acclaimed author, and finds himself in her shadow and he builds a life with Helen (who becomes a teacher), along with two sons. Jenny’s publication drives much of the narrative of the film, but believe me when I say this is only scratching the surface of what the film is about.

One movie I kept thinking about while watching “Garp” is “Forrest Gump.” From a structural standpoint, both films are somewhat similar, but Garp is on a completely different level, in terms of emotional storytelling. I’ll discuss “Gump” more when I review it, but both films use their protagonists as filters of the times in which they live. What Roy Hill, Tesich and Irving do so well in “Garp,” however, is not act as though the worldview Garp sees life through is gospel, and we see both positive, and negative, impacts Jenny’s writing has on the world, and Garp. After her fame rises, Jenny’s home (which was once her parents’s home; they were played by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the beginning) becomes a beacon, of sorts, for women who are inspired by her writing. One of these women is Roberta Muldoon, a former NFL tight end played by John Lithgow, and it is not only a credit to Lithgow and the other actors, but to the film itself, that you just accept Lithgow in the role, without a moment’s thought. He’s just this character, and it’s a female character, and even if you’re still uncomfortable with transgendered people in real life, this film treats Roberta with the most respect it can by simply accepting her as is, and following through with her arc, and seeing how she becomes family to Jenny and Garp. This is tremendous work by Lithgow, and I can’t believe it took me this long to watch it as a fan of his alone.

If Roberta shows the positive impact of Jenny’s work, and worldview, the Ellen James Society represents a more problematic ray shining through a feminist prism. It feels almost fitting that, when I’m watching this film, we are ensconced in a profound discussion of female empowerment, and solidarity, when it comes to victims of sexual assault coming together in the #metoo movement. In Irving’s story, Ellen James is a girl who was brutally raped, and had her tongue cut out by her attackers so that she couldn’t tell the police who they were. The Ellen James Society is a movement which stands in solidarity with Ellen, and one of the ways they do this is by having their own tongues cut out. Solidarity is one thing; self-mutilation in the name of solidarity feels self-defeating, and it leads to one of the most powerful moments in the film when Garp, empathetic towards Ellen, but revolted by the followers hurting themselves in her name, writes a book about the movement that rouses as much ire towards him as his mother has faced over the years because of her book. There’s a moment late in the film when Garp is faced with a young woman who cannot speak after he is chased from a memorial service for his mother, and, in this brief moment, I couldn’t stop crying, not only because of the performances by Williams and Amanda Plummer, but because of what it meant for just how far Garp’s writing had reached. He had found an audience he had wanted to reach, and they appreciated it, as he had hoped.

There is so much to talk about with this movie. The fact that this soundtrack buff didn’t even really notice the lack of a score, and the film still hit every, important emotional beat it meant to. The fact that Garp and Helen’s relationship has a full arc, apart from everything else, that would be enough for its own film, yet fits perfectly within the context of Irving’s story, and has profound emotional beats on its own. The fact that moments from Garp’s childhood- like a dog attack and a young girl who seems to have it out for him- come back in unexpected ways as he grows old. This film, from my review, sounds like a serious work of drama, but there’s a huge abundance of humor within the film, as well. I love the way Garp ends his first meeting with Helen. I love the time he and Roberta play with Garp’s kids. I love watching Garp tell his short story, Magic Gloves, to his mother, and the way Close’s face lights up when he finishes. And I love the light Williams has in his face even if dramatic moments, like a helicopter ride with Helen at the end, when he’s about to die. This is definitely a turning point for me when it comes to Robin Williams, and it’s a movie I’m blessed to have finally watched.

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