The name “George Roy Hill” might not be a household name here in 2016, but if the man himself doesn’t ring a bell you probably still know his films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are his best, riding high on the indomitable pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That pair would be separated for Hill’s ensuing films The Great Waldo Pepper and Slap Shot, both of which are well-crafted if not ultimately as powerful as those other two. The one that might throw you for a loop is The World According to Garp, a film from late in Hill’s career starring Robin Williams in his first dramatic role.
…that phrase doesn’t mean what it did back then, though, because “Williams in a dramatic role” isn’t as much of a novelty nor is it even something that seems worthy of being highlighted today. Dead Poets, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and Fisher King let Williams be Williams — not merely Comedic Williams or Dramatic Williams — and despite the films themselves being best suited to the “Drama” category at your local rental store you probably don’t think twice about the star being a guy who most consider to be one of the funniest ever to walk the planet.
Anyway: Garp. There’s something missing from this tale, something that fails to make what should be a highly effective story truly pop off the screen. The pieces are there. Williams is great as Garp, Glenn Close is great as his Mama, Mary Beth Hurt is great as his wife Helen, and even John Lithgow puts in memorable time as the linebacker-turned-transsexual Roberta Muldoon (his is the more lighthearted version of Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s Molina, essentially). John Irving’s source material provides a wealth of thematic material, mostly related to gender and sex and coming of age in the modern violence-and-sex-crazed world. Who better to pull off something set on the cusp of a brave new world than George Roy Hill, who knocked that out of the park with both Cassidy and Waldo?
Maybe it’s that the pieces that make up Garp are just that — pieces — and at times they don’t come together as they should to form a cohesive whole. There is comedy (think Garp and Helen chasing down the windblown pages of his new short story) and there is drama (think people getting shot), but there’s such a wide chasm between the two that the film fails to fill. The drama happens too quickly, jarring us out of a lighthearted tale about a guy named T.S. Garp and into a scene concluding with a man dangling from a tree, or with a car crash that ends the life of a young character. For some reason there’s just a lack of synergy between the two.
Garp himself is portrayed in a similarly fractured way. He’s a mama’s boy, but he also has a little Rabbit Angstrom in his DNA. When Garp becomes a parent he jumps for joy and scales the stairs to the second floor in as much time as it would have taken him if the guy had wings. What great energy is this! But it’s somehow not enough, as if Garp were missing the heat to bring that potential energy to full boil. Heck, on the subject of loving your kids, Williams mustered more pathos and life from his Mrs. Doubtfire character than he does as Garp. George Roy Hill famously disallowed improv to any significant degree from all of his actors, but with Williams on hand that restraint is perhaps too apparent.
Not for nothing, the man himself agrees with me. Sort of. This snippet is from his 1988 interview with Rolling Stone, which used the release of Good Morning, Vietnam as a worthy excuse for a career mini-retrospective. When prompted to look back and give his bite-sized opinion on Garp:
I think Garp is a wonderful film. It may have lacked a certain madness onscreen, but it had a great core. It had a wonderful sense of family. Maybe if I had known more about children at the time, I could have done more with it. I would love to take now what I know about my son and the powerful feeling of parenthood and play Garp again.
Okay, that’s it: “a certain madness.” That’s what Garp and Garp are lacking. Garp’s wife cheats on him and this leads to a car accident, which renders Garp mute for a while as his jaw heals. There’s anger and resentment and pain and immense sadness pouring from Garp as he stands hunched over with his jaw wired shut. In those scenes one wants to unwire Garp’s mouth, unwire the rigid restraints of The World According to Garp, let character and film get whipped up by the jazzy energy barely visible in the foundation of the story.
After that, sure, bring it back to earth. George Roy Hill wouldn’t hem his story in unnecessarily, and we certainly don’t presume to overlook the role of suppression and sexual restraint in the story itself. In some sense this methodology is sound. But it forces a lack of balance, the entire film occurring within a carefully constructed box. Though built on great ideas, peopled by great performers, and anchored by a guy proving himself to be much more than a funnyman, The World According to Garp just needs that little bit of madness to reach the heights it deserves.