Saturday, 18 May 2013

Movie Review: The World According To Garp (1982)


An adaptation of the John Irving best-selling novel, The World According To Garp is the story of a cute bastard who grows up in a world rocked by feminism. The movie is episodic and at times rudderless, but the central performances and an endearing quirkiness help to maintain good engagement.

During World War Two, nurse Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), a fiercely independent budding feminist, shocks her parents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) by announcing that she is intentionally and happily pregnant out of wedlock. The father, a badly wounded tailgunner known only as Technical Sergeant Garp, died soon after Jenny, wanting a child but no entanglement with a man, used him as a sperm source. Jenny gives her newborn boy the name T.S. Garp, and he grows up longing for the father he never knew.

In college, Garp (Robin Williams) falls in love with Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt), the daughter of his wrestling coach. Garp and his mother move to New York and both embark on writing careers. Jenny's first book, a feminist manifesto, is a huge success and catapults her into the limelight as an icon for the movement. She establishes a shelter for abused women, militant feminists, and assorted hangers-on, including Roberta Muldoon (John Lithgow), a transgendered former pro footballer. Garp's literary career is slower to take off, but he marries Helen, they have two boys, and maintain a good relationship with Jenny. Both Garp and Helen have fidelity problems that threaten the family's happiness, while Jenny is attracted to the idea of a run for political office.

George Roy Hill directs The World According To Garp as a balance between mature comedy and light drama, the film tackling serious issues without necessarily taking itself too seriously. The main weakness in the script (co-written by Irving) strikes about halfway through, once a grown Garp has married Helen and Jenny has achieved her fame: all the narrative arcs of the movie appear to be resolved, and future adventures in the lives of Garp and Jenny take on a disconnected, what-next tone. A book thrives on springing sequential surprises, but a 130 minute movie typically needs better-defined boulevards for the characters to navigate.

Some choppiness aside, The World According To Garp is an agreeable chronicle of feminism, and as such is much more about the mother than the son. While Garp is mostly an interested observer reacting to events rather than shaping them, it is Jenny Fields who is shaking the world around her to achieve the change that she wants to see. Jenny never met an initiative that she did not want to seize, and her journey from nurse to single mother to feminist icon to shelter provider and finally aspiring politician is the story of post-war feminism.

The movie gives Jenny her due, with Glenn Close delivering a confident performance filled with pragmatic heroism. But she also emerges as a change agent without an essential backstory. The motivations and circumstances that drove Jenny to carve her own pioneering path lamentably remain strictly off camera.

As for Garp, his story is that of Jenny's bastard son, three words that carry huge rewards and penalties. Thanks to his mother, Garp has no choice but to see the world through the newly enlightened eyes of men who will need to thrive alongside empowered women. Garp becomes the prototype, faults and all, for the men of the baby boom generation charting a course through a world where women are suddenly leaders rather than followers in social change. Robin Williams brings his approachable charms to the role, and controls his more manic tendencies.

John Lithgow was deservedly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for bringing to life Roberta Muldoon, a confident man-turned-woman who thrives in the new reality made possible by the tidal wave of social change. Mary Beth Hurt provides positive support as Helen, a woman who herself is not necessarily a change catalyst but who is now more free to explore the new rules, including rewritten sexual empowerment axioms, created by the Jenny Fields of the world.

Garp's world is never less than interesting and is often humorously turbulent, thanks to the courage of the women in his life.






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