The World According to Garp
Screenplay : Steve Tesich (based on the novel by John Irving)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1982
Stars : Robin Williams (T. S. Garp), Mary Beth Hurt (Helen Holm), Glenn Close (Jenny Fields), John Lithgow (Roberta Muldoon)
For all the weird events that transpire during its 131 minutes, "The World According to Garp" is a strangely unaffecting movie. Interesting, yes. Original, yes. Often hilarious, yes. But, despite the fact that it sets itself up as a tragicomic social satire striking several specific targets, not much of it really stays with you after it's over.
Instead, it just seems to waver between almost sitcom-like normality, and bizarre outlandishness. One minute we have a character staring doe-eyed at his children, speaking lovingly about the joys of fatherhood, and the next minute he's taking an iron pipe to an electrician's truck because the electrician was driving too fast through the neighborhood. As directed by George Roy Hill ("The Sting") from John Irving's popular novel, "The World According to Garp" never really seems to get a foothold on its material. All the scenes are composed of good acting and a lively tone, but they doesn't come together as they should.
The Garp of the title is T.S. Garp, played by Robin Williams. The T.S. doesn't really stand for anything, although Garp claims it stands for everything from "Terribly Sexy" to "Terribly Sad," depending on the situation. Garp was named after his father, a wounded veteran of World War II who his mother, a nurse named Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), slept with while he was in a near-death coma-like state. It could hardly be described as consensual sex, and when one man hears the story, his eyes go wide and he cries, "You raped him!"
But Jenny is unphased. It seemed perfectly rational to her. If you can't tell already, Garp's mother is a very eccentric woman who doesn't much care for men. She wanted a child, but she didn't want to be nagged with having to share him with a husband. By her way of thinking, men are all filled with lust and they aren't worth her time. It's not that she hates men, she just feels indifferent toward them, as if the world wouldn't be any worse if they all disappeared.
Garp grows up with Jenny at a private school where she works as a nurse. There he meets his future wife, Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt), and dreams of becoming a famous writer. Unfortunately, his mother beats him to the punch by writing a feminist manifesto that catches on with the liberal women activists of the 1960's. Soon, Jenny is a household name, a true radical who opens her home estate to women seeking refuge from the world's injustices. Meanwhile, Garp settles down into a normal lifestyle with his wife and children, proud to be a family man, but always a bit perturbed that he is known best as "The Bastard Son of Jenny Fields" instead of a critically acclaimed author in his own right.
The two main targets of "Garp" seem to be extremist groups and random violence in society. The movie takes jabs at extremist groups with its portrayal of the Ellen Jamesians, a group of women who willingly cut out their own tongues to protest the rape of an 11-year old girl named Ellen James. The rapists cut her tongue out so she wouldn't be able to identify them, and the Ellen Jamesians uphold her memory with their own self-mutilation. When Ellen sends them a letter asking them to please stop doing this in her name, they take a vote and decide to continue doing it despite their inspiration's lack of support. As Garp puts it, "You mean now there's a group of Ellen Jamesians without Ellen James?"
Garp just doesn't get it, and for good reason. Despite his odd conception and upbringing, he's the eternal Everyman. He just wants to have a good family, and be remembered for something. His life of suburban normalcy pales in comparison to his mother's feminist resort, populated with tongueless women and sexually altered football players like Ruberta Muldoon (John Lithgow). Robin Williams may seem like an odd choice to play such a normal guy, but he actually works well in the role. He's good at conveying his utter bewilderment at the strange goings-on around him, while Jenny just stands back and smiles, never once thinking that any of this is odd.
"The World According to Garp" is memorable mostly because it keeps the audience so completely off-kilter. Its humor and satire is constantly punctuated with mean-spirited violence (both on and off-screen): a little boy being attacked by a vicious dog, multiple assassinations and assassination attempts, a plane crashing into a house, a man biting a dog's ear off, tongues being cut out, a man having his penis bitten off, car wrecks, and so on.
The film is an odd assortment of scenes that sometimes feel pasted together, as if they would work better separately than as a whole. You can feel what George Roy Hill was trying to do, but unfortunately it never clicks right. As an interesting chronicle of one man's odd and eclectic life from birth to near-death, "The World According to Garp" is a good film. As a black comedy social satire, it never manages to get above the material and really affect the viewer other than to make him uncomfortable.
©1997 James Kendrick