THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP
Directed and Produced by George Roy Hill
Screenplay by Steve Tesich
Based on the novel by John Irving
I don’t believe in coincidence. I firmly believe that what may seem like unrelated incidents are no such thing at all. They happen for a reason. From the world-shattering to the utterly mundane. Indulge me for a minute, okay? I promise I’ll be brief as I explain.
I recently got an email from a reader of my reviews who had read the reviews I wrote on “The Whole Wide World” and “Barton Fink”. Since those were movies about writers she asked me what I thought of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP which is also a movie about a writer. I hadn’t seen the movie in years, I emailed back. I wasn’t even sure it was on DVD for me to Netflix.
But something happened to our DirecTV and we went without for a couple of days. The problem was corrected and by way of compensation, DirecTV gave us three free months of Starz! And wouldn’t you know it, I turn it on and one of the movies being shown that month is THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.
T.S. Garp (Robin Williams) is destined for an unusual and eccentric life. Given the nature of his conception it couldn’t be anything but. His mother Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) had intercourse with a brain dead war victim because while she wanted a child she didn’t want a husband. And since he had all this sperm he wasn’t using anyway…I trust you get the idea.
Jenny is an extremely unconventional but enormously loving mother as well as a remarkably skilled nurse. She raises Garp in an unconventional manner, not giving a flying kitty what society thinks. But he strives to be his own person. Such as when he decides to take up the sport of wrestling over her wishes. Garp also falls in love with his coach’s daughter Helen (Mary Beth Hurt) which also doesn’t sit well with his mother. It’s because she doesn’t believe men can have any emotion other than lust. Jenny’s willing to go so far as to hire a hooker (Swoosie Kurtz) for Garp even though she confesses she doesn’t understand this whole business of sex but she’s highly intrigued about the subject and the role of women as sexual beings in a male dominated society.
In fact, Jenny’s so intrigued she writes a manifesto about the subject which goes on to be a best seller. This is ironic because Garp has had dreams of being a best-selling writer himself. Even though his books sell they don’t sell anywhere near as fast or as much as his mother’s. He’s somewhat regulated to being more well known as Jenny’s son rather than as The Author (ta-da!) T.S. Garp.
Jenny becomes so successful that a sort of feminist cult springs up around her without anybody being sure of how it started. One of Jenny’s followers is Roberta Muldoon (John Lithgow) a transsexual who used to be a pro football player. Roberta’s one of the nicer of Jenny’s followers who ends up being Garp’s best friend as well as a sort of unofficial bodyguard to Jenny. Not so nice is The Ellen James Society, a group of women who have had their tongues surgically removed in protest at the rape of a young girl who had her tongue cut out by the men who raped her.
Garp settles down to what he always imagined his life would be; he’s happily raising two sons with Helen while writing his books. It seems as if life couldn’t get any better but there’s an old saying that we must taste bitter waters along with the sweet and Garp will have to drink the bitterest of waters indeed.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP reminds me a lot of “Forrest Gump” in that the movie is more a series of events than anything else. We get the highlights of Garp’s life which are memorable indeed since he seems to be a magnet for disaster but he recovers from one devastating blow after another with a sort of bemused resignation. He didn’t ask for this life but he’s determined to make the best of it. The best advice his mother ever gave him was that life is an adventure and despite the disappointments he tries not to let it crush him.
This movie is a good opportunity to see a lot of good performers early on in their careers. Robin Williams reminded me here that when he wants to he really can act. This is his first dramatic role and amazingly Williams doesn’t fall back on his (at that time) manic style of performing He’s an actor I’ve grown disappointed with in recent years. Except for his performances in “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo” I can’t recommend a Robin Williams film he’s made in the last two or three years or so. But he’s really good here. As is Glenn Close and Mary Beth Hurt.
But the acting honors for this one go to John Lithgow as the transsexual Roberta Muldoon. Now by no stretch of the imagination can John Lithgow convincingly pass for a woman but like John Leguizamo and Patrick Swayze in “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar” John Lithgow has an amazing ability to tap into his feminine side so well and so convincingly that you buy it. The scene where Roberta gives Garp a kiss is a howl because of the reaction on Garp’s face. The scene lasts just a couple of seconds and almost happens off screen because they’re so far to the right of the screen but it’s worth watching for just for the reaction.
The only real problem I have with the movie is the ending which is maddingly ambiguous as to Garp’s fate. Having invested in these characters for two hours I felt I needed a more concrete ending. And that’s the core of the movie: its characters. There’s real characters here occupying a really good story and I didn’t feel my time was wasted eavesdropping on their lives.
So should you see THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP? I’d say yes. It’s not a classic at all. It’s not a Must See movie. But it is a movie worth seeing for the performances of Robin Williams, Glenn Close, Mary Beth Hurt and John Lithgow. And for the twists and turns the sometimes bizarre story takes. It’s a movie that manages to be funny, tragic, whimsical and life-affirming which puts it light-years ahead of most of the movies I saw this past summer.