World According to Garp, The (1982)

“When I’m old and gray, I won’t remember my past. We have to do it now, while we’re still young.”

WATG Poster

Synopsis:
An aspiring writer (Robin Williams) married to a literature professor (Mary Beth Hurt) must deal with the sudden success of his best-selling feminist mother (Glenn Close).

Genres:

Review:
George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp is ultimately little more than a dutiful cinematic translation of key scenes and characters from its source material, John Irving’s bestselling 1978 novel. As noted by Roger Ebert, “Like a lot of movie versions of novels, the film of Garp has not reinterpreted the material in its own terms. Indeed, it doesn’t interpret it at all.” While the trajectory of Garp’s life — from his infamous conception via a dying, bed-ridden gunnery soldier to his periodic encounters with plane crashes, automobile accidents, and assassinations — is anything but conventional, Steve Tesich’s screenplay reduces this meaty material to merely an episodic attempt at satire, one which never really compels as a whole; as Janet Maslin wrote in her review for The New York Times, the film’s “story consists of tiny events and wildly monumental ones, with nothing intermediate to connect them.”

Playing the film’s titular protagonist, Robin Williams is competent and generally sympathetic, but slips into variations on himself far too easily to convince us that his T.S. Garp really exists as a viable character. Much more believable is Glenn Close in her Oscar-nominated feature debut as Garp’s eccentric, asexual mother: her performance remains the film’s primary redeeming virtue. Jon Lithgow (also nominated for an Academy Award) is both dignified and amusing in a supporting role as Garp’s transsexual friend, Roberta, but his character — like much of the film — is sadly under-written. Indeed, it’s disappointing to see so many intriguing storylines — including Mary Beth Hurt’s affair with a graduate student (Mark Soper), Close’s relationship with a reformed hooker (Swoozie Kurtz), and the existence of a group of extremist feminists known as the Ellen James society (who cut off their tongues in solidarity with a young rape victim) — treated with so little consideration. By the end of the film, one can only guess at the richer themes and characterizations in Irving’s novel, which fail to make a lasting impression on-screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Glenn Close as Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields
    WATG Close

Must See?
No; this one-time cult favorite hasn’t stood the test of time. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “World According to Garp, The (1982)”

  1. Overall, I’m in agreement with the assessment given – especially the point that it’s the film’s episodic nature that is its main undoing. The various pieces aren’t boring, especially – in fact, they are often compelling – but some cohesion sure would come in handy. Without that, things do plod along a bit, with viewers given little to do by way of piecing it all together.

    Indeed, some of the individual story lines could be complete narratives in themselves. Especially, John Lithgow’s Roberta. I have seldom seen Lithgow this right for a role. And I kept wanting the film to be Roberta’s story – but, alas, she’s more or less kept on the periphery and the result is somewhat frustrating.

    That said, I do think the film is directed quite well by George Roy Hill (in the spirit of his earlier ‘The World of Henry Orient’, actually) and the performances are interesting enough that I’ll give the film a ‘once-must’ recommendation.

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