The World According to Garp has some of the bounciest opening credits I’ve seen. Literally, we start things off with a bouncing baby boy and the peppy strains of the Beatles’ “When I’m 64.” It isn’t until the end that these opening frames actually forebode a melancholic end as opposed to a brightly shining beginning, but, as in life, no one knows whether they’ll make it to 64 or not.
Based on the John Irving book of the same name, The World According to Garp is a quirky, wholly odd film with shades of black comedy and bleaker storytelling that leaves you to question whether Garp’s world is one of exaggeration and imagination where he takes center stage, or a painful hyperbole of our own mythic journey from the cradle to the grave.
T.S. Garp (Robin Williams) is most commonly known as “the bastard son of Jenny Fields,” (Glenn Close) a radical feminist who’s penned a successful manifesto on women and relationships. As Garp tries to navigate and forge his own identity his own personal issues with his wife (Mary Beth Hurt) shape who he is.
John Irving said he wrote The World According to Garp as a means of dealing with his own issues over never knowing his father, thus he created a fantasy world where Garp could either be his father or Irving himself. An air of magical realism wafts through the entire movie, with Garp himself practically thought into existence like a modern-day Athena.
Jenny, unwilling to give over any of her independence to a man but desiring a child, goes about getting Garp by any means necessary – and, yes, her means bring up questions of male consent. “I never saw him standing up,” Jenny tells her parents and that’s all we’re privy to about the man Garp idealizes. In fact, as Garp picks up bits and pieces of his own father, he himself is a concoction – the name T.S. meaning either “Technical Sergeant” or T.S. Eliot. As Jenny comes into her own, she ends up penning a feminist manifesto and becoming a leader for women who have found themselves lost or abused in the world. Much of Garp’s resentment not only stems from the bizarre women living in his mother’s house, but also her success overshadowing his.
This is where I was left confused about the movie’s intentions, not the first or last time this would happen in Garp. Glenn Close plays Jenny with an amazing tenacity. She’s a truly independent woman who never regrets any element about her life. Her opening sequence with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn as her parents set the tone for the type of woman Jenny is and the life she’s preparing to leave behind. (Her father’s line – “Don’t you dare say ‘sperm’ in this house” – left me in stitches.)
But I’m unclear about how the audience should take Jenny’s female commune. All the women in it are either severely damaged, by rape or other traumas, and are perceived by Garp as damaged goods or weirdos, so we’re never sure if these are supposed to be straw feminists or not. Running throughout this is Garp’s intentions of making contact with the leader of a radical feminist group who wishes to not be deified. It’s an intriguing element, but seems to come to fruition rather abruptly, more of a period at the end of a sentence than a grand epiphany.
Robin Williams as Garp might be an unconventional choice, but Garp himself is an unconventional character. Williams infuses a character who could have been overly cynical or quirky with the right blend of sensitivity, bitterness, and love. His love for his family is always genuine, even when it’s falling apart. Garp’s relationship with his wife Helen (Mary Beth Hurt) takes up most of the film’s second act.
With the preeminent divorce drama only three years prior (1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer), The World According to Garp’s marriage shows the effects of a relationship that falls apart due to ennui before the infidelity happens. Hurt and Williams’ characters meet as college students and despite a long-standing love, and two children, they fall into routine through no fault of their own. Unfortunately, the film takes a turn for the absurd when one of their children dies through an accident involving no headlights, a car in the driveway, and a couple in flagrante delicto. After that, the film sees the couple endure losing a child, and coming to the understanding and realization that they still love each other, even if their love is imperfect.
Nominated for two Oscars for its supporting cast of Close and John Lithgow, both are fantastic. Close gets the meatier part, but Lithgow steals the show as a transgender football player. For 1982 Lithgow’s performance had to be shocking, and yet no one ever acknowledges Roberta as different. When Garp and Roberta first meet, the former notices a familiarity in the latter – Roberta was once a famous football player – but, overall, considers Roberta the most “normal” person he’s ever met. It is regrettable that, for all the progress Roberta shows as a trans character, she harps about never wanting children until she became a woman, and that her intuition is purely because she’s female, as if those are benefits only the female sex gets.
The magical realism of the film leaves you wondering whether this is a wacky soap opera or not. The acting from all involved is amazing, but plot elements come out of nowhere, and maybe that’s the intention – that life doesn’t go in narrative sequence; things happen unexpectedly and in violation of convention.