The World According to Garp (1982)

Dir. George Roy Hill. Starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close, Mary Beth Hurt

“The Pension Grillparzer” is the story in The World According to Garp, the novel, which changes Garp’s life. It’s presented clearly as the best of his work, the purest expression of him as a writer. It’s why Helen Holm marries him. It’s not in The World According to Garp, the movie. I find this eminently understandable, because it is not a short story that makes a lot of sense, it has no real plot to speak of, and I can’t imagine trying to film it. The film version of The World According to Garp replaces “The Pension Grillparzer,” and as much as it makes this film significantly easier to approach, and makes this film significantly less ungainly as a streamlined story, it is a willing amputation of magic. The story of Jenny and Garp and Helen derives a great deal of its richness from this suggestion of a world not far away from their own, one with bears in hostels and aging fortune tellers and unassuming hotel inspectors and their quaint families. While on one side the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s unfold as we know them, with blood running palpably on the corner of Venus and Mars, on the other side there is still a whiff of amiable lunacy in the air. The film chooses palpable blood; the book, for all of its faults, chooses amiable lunacy. Regardless of what one knows about one, the other, or both, one’s preference for blood or lunacy is likely to dictate which one works better for you.

But enough about “is the book better than the movie,” a question that never does seem to have an interesting answer. The World According to Garp is an adequate movie, anchored primarily through its performances. In 2021 we’d never have John Lithgow playing Roberta Muldoon, but it’s hard to find anything about how he plays this trans woman which seems to be making fun of her. Mary Beth Hurt plays Helen with a nerdy delicacy that is mostly her glasses but perhaps also in what appears to be a real physical frailness. The kids are both giving good performances, especially Nathan Babcock, who plays Duncan with a certain older brother flair that mixes generosity with needling. Robin Williams is charming, if basically unobtrusive, as Garp, which is exactly what the movie wants from him. It’s unrewarding work, giving him very little to do in terms of gaining applause or plaudits, and it’s about as close as one can get to watching Williams play the straight man. And then there’s Glenn Close, who is doing the full Bonnie and Clyde on this movie as she plays Jenny Fields, a woman who has no sense of humor or a sense of why that humorlessness might be awkward for other people. Naturally this makes the great dramatic actress—in her first screen role, which is stunning to consider—a wonderful comic foil for one of the funniest people in American comedy. Close plays this woman to the hilt, which is why it’s a charming performance, but there’s something missing in the writing about Jenny. Women flock to her, and the women at Dog’s Head Harbor treat her word like it’s law. We can understand why Garp and Roberta are devoted to her, and why she is a wonderful grandmother and mother-in-law. The film struggles, though, to show us Jenny Fields as the great soul of a movement.

That A Sexual Suspect becomes a best-seller and its author an icon makes sense; that she would become the mother of an impromptu women’s home where she is like the world’s grandmother is something the movie drops on us rather than leads us to with meaningful scenes. There are some events at Dog’s Head Harbor that don’t necessarily involve Garp, whose presence as a man is barely tolerated by other people there, but for the most part the film struggles to imagine what could possibly be happening there or why it’s happening if it’s not overreacting to his male presence. And it is meant to be seen as overreacting, too. There’s a scene where Garp tries to help a woman up and she starts screaming uncontrollably. She’s been raped; she doesn’t want men to touch her, it’s explained. The film treats that moment not like something which is entirely understandable but as this insensible screeching, which is an injudicious choice to be sure. The general word on this film’s take on the Ellen Jamesians—women who have cut out their own tongues to protest the rape of the likewise mutilated girl Ellen James (Amanda Plummer), who is personally horrified by their collective mutilation—is that it lacks nuance. I’ll grant that this is a pretty stark and humorless satire about second-wave feminism, and that the film doesn’t really know what to do with them besides foreground them even more than they’re foregrounded in the source material. Garp’s reaction to the death of his son in the film is to write a political screed rather than a novel, to call it Ellen, and to basically call out the Ellen Jamesians in print. If, to you, this feels like a totally bizarre direction to place one’s seething anger and grief, then I’d be willing to wager that you’re a normal human being. It’s why that moment where Garp doesn’t know what to do with the screaming woman comes off so strangely; the film is weirded out by the women whose names we don’t know.

As good as the performances are, there is a a severe structural problem in the back half of The World According to Garp that is irrecoverable. There is an awful lot of violence in the second half of the movie that never really gives the viewer time to recuperate from earlier blows. Hill reuses the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the death of Walt (Ian McGregor), which is a good way to save money on a crash in the driveway and to increase the shock value of seeing the Garp-Holm family in states of medical trauma when Roberta returns from her cruise. It is, on the other hand, probably the least effective way to show us the death of a child that turns the rest of the film on its head. Everyone else is gutted by Walt’s death, with the possible exception of Jenny. (Jenny’s forever having loaded conversations with people which place totally unnecessary emotional weight on situations for those among us who have not been asleep through 80% of the picture. She’s the one who talks to Walt about how everyone dies someday; before her own death, she can’t hear Garp tell her that he never needed a father.) Hill is not really depicting Walt’s death, which comes about in these highly specific circumstances which ought to stun us as viewers. He’s depicting the death of anyone’s child, making any parent wonder about seat belts or what have you in such horrible situations, and Walt is somehow absent from that.

This reliance on ambiance doesn’t serve the film well as people in the film continue to react to this specific death while our emotions head in a different direction. Walt’s death is gotten over a little too quickly, but it has to happen that way so that Jenny can finally be assassinated. Jenny’s death and Garp’s subsequent attendance at her funeral happen a little too quickly, but that’s because Garp has to be shot and (I guess maybe not?) killed. There’s no sense of pace once we get into the tail end of this picture, only a hellbent desire to get to the end. In much the same way, the film rushes to get to Robin Williams, who looked older in high school than I look as someone who’s supposed to be Garp’s age, and there’s no possible way to understand him as a high schooler or even a guy going to New York with his mom rather than heading to college. It’s a shame, because the film starts with such promise in depicting the early years of Garp’s life, one vacant animation sequence aside. Watching Garp grow up, from convenient hiding place for boarding school boys’ porn magazines to child who nearly falls off the roof, is genuinely quite interesting. The reason why, though, has much more to do with Glenn Close than it does with anything else. It’s she who makes the vignettes of the film’s first act shine, and The World According to Garp never comes back to that level of quality once we start seeing the picture from Garp’s point of view.

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