Splendid performances highlight this sharp, satirical adaptation of John Irving’s dark best-seller about the adventures of an illegitimate, eccentric young man hell-bent on being a writer.
T.S. Garp, magnificently played by Robin Williams in an amalgam of emotions tinged with comic force but eventually moving and tearful as any great clown playing Pagliacci, is first shown in the credits floating in his diapers through clear, cobalt-blue air.
This floating feeling remains throughout, as Garp walks through life a few feet off the ground at all times, never quite touching the same dull earth the rest of us drag ourselves across.
Named for the “Technical Sergeant” who impregnated his mother in 1944, Garp later interprets his initials as “terribly sexy.”
Raised by his ferociously liberated mother, who works as a nurse in a boys’ school, Garp grows up accident prone, always in trouble, but determined to live up to Mom’s philosophy: “Everybody dies – the thing to do is have a life before we do. That can be a real adventure!”
Garp, like the book’s author, John Irving, excels at wrestling and writing. Irving even makes a guest appearance as a wrestling coach.
There’s an endearing scene in which Garp tries to write about something that has happened to him while his mother stops lecturing about lust and the world going to hell long enough to write about what happened to her.
The friendly competitive spirit that is to last his whole life through is established early, coupled with a compassionate closeness that makes for one of the most bizarre but indelible mother-son love scenes ever captured on film – not since Edna Ferber’s So Big has there been such an Oedipal complex.
When he moves to New York to become a “real writer,” Mom moves with him. But his writing doesn’t sell.
Mom, meanwhile, writes a sexy best-seller without knowing anything about sex and becomes the Gloria Steinem of her day.
It is just one of the ironies that keep intruding on Garp’s peace of mind. He can’t sell beans while her book is acclaimed as a political feminist manifesto and gets translated into every language including Apache.
The day he finds the honeymoon house for his new bride and forthcoming family, a plane smashes through the roof as a symbol of doom.
Meanwhile, there are dog bites, hideous mutilations, an assassination, and a freak car accident involving his wife – who is performing oral sex on one of her English students at the time. Tragically her bite reflex is unfortunately strong!
There is also a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles who has a sex change, a society of women who cut out their tongues to protest the mutilation of a child rape victim, a feminist funeral that turns into a riot, and so many sex scenes you wonder where Irving dreamed up Garp – in a bookstore or a brothel.
Through it all, Robin Williams is absolutely wonderful. He’s a great clown, but he sublimates his goony tendency to revert to bird calls when faced with a serious silence between laughs, and a three-dimensional portrait of a comic victim of life’s neurotic tango emerges that is hypnotic.
Mostly he is called upon to react to the terrible things everyone else is doing around him, and this is the hardest, most demanding kind of acting he has ever done.
Williams is sublimely wonderful. So are Glenn Close, as Garp’s tough mother (this was the debut feature film for Glenn Close) ; Mary Beth Hurt, as the wife who remains the calming center of his life even though his goodness drives her into a marital infidelity that almost destroys their happiness; and John Lithgow, as the football-playing transsexual.
All of these variables are orchestrated by director Hill with a frenzy resembling inspired madness. There is horrible violence everywhere, mixed with sentimental, old-fashioned idealism. To many, the combination will not work.
Mary Beth Hurt
Peter Michael Goetz
George Roy Hill