Sunday, January 25, 2015

The World According to Robin Williams: Garp, A Strange and Weird Tale

Movie Review: The World According to Garp

Director: George Roy Hill

Reviewed: 4 January 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

In an attempt to fill all of the cinematic gaps in my appreciation for the late Robin Williams, I found The World According to Garp, his 1982 debut simultaneously warm and weird, twinkly and abrupt, and I left thankful for a look at the very young Williams as well as a greater appreciation for the strange source material, the beloved novel by John Irving. He would come to Oscar success later for The Cider House Rules about two years after Williams would earn his Oscar for Good Will Hunting. But here, in the capable, confident hands of director George Roy Hill who won Best Director Oscars for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Sting, both actor and writer deliver strong but weird debuts as does Glenn Close in her first of six Oscar nominated performances as Garp's mother. I wonder what the reaction at the time was to such a tale.

The story is just strange: Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) has a child with a doomed WW2 aviator off screen, resulting in the buoyant and lovable Garp (various actors and then Robin Williams) whom she raises alone and according to her own fixed (and strange) principles. A nurse, Jenny engages with her child in a matter-of-fact intensity, and they go from a boarding school in New England to a rough and tumble New York City where both discover the writing bug. The story skips around, leaping forward in time without warning, and although it is refreshing, there at times seems to be a complete lack of narrative. The film is messy with its jumping around, giving short shrift to Roberta (wonderfully played by John Lithgow) and even Garp's love interest (Mary Beth Hurt).

Some terrible stuff lies in store for Garp, and the shock of it (and some subsequent violence) disrupts the course of this sentimental film. It is hard to reconcile the viciousness of the acts committed in moments with the comedic, schmaltzy tone. The film is remarkable for its lack of score or soundtrack, something that I think could have derailed it. At its best, Garp is about people and connection and imperfections, and watching Garp's mom watch him warn his son about the undertow (his son hears "undertoad") in the ocean is a quiet, poignant moment worth savoring. On some level I'm realizing this, even as a new dad: the ones we love have to eventually wander into the ocean with all of its beauty, terror, and uncertainty. The watching is an inevitability and necessity, though we at times want to (and have to) rescue the ones we love from despair (and slippery rooftops).

To watch an old but new film is to miss Robin Williams. There are shades of Williams' brilliance here in his debut performance, with his crinkly face and twinkly eyes, running everywhere onscreen and pretending with his children in the front yard. This was Williams before he became a motormouth of impressions and manic energy (sometimes in the very best of ways, sometimes grating). The quieter moments of teacher Mr. Keating lie ahead in his path, as does the grief stricken wisdom of Sean MaGuire and the dance and dazzle of Aladdin's Genie. Before it all, Williams was Garp, a strange man in a strange world, a naked baby thrown up and down in the air on the ocean wanting to fly. I'm glad to have caught up with this film, but I don't know if I will ever seek it out again. Such is life.

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