Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Graduate

Year: 1967
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 17
Writer: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry
Director: Mike Nichols
Star: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross

In its first moments, “The Graduate” poses the question of who Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is. We see his blank expression on an airplane and then in an endless shot as he rides a moving sidewalk after getting off the plane. Who is this guy and why is he acting so…unemotional? The first real line of the movie is Ben’s father asking him “What’s wrong?”

After watching the rest of the movie, I still have no idea who Ben is.

Hoffman’s character has just graduated college with some meaningless honor and is adrift in his life. How do we know this? Well, aside from that opening sequence, we also see him underwater in a scuba suit for almost a minute. Oh, and a long sequence of him on a raft, literally adrift in a pool (he says it and everything). We get it. The dude doesn’t know his place in life and feels isolated from everything around him. Moving on.

Perhaps here I should insert a personal bias against lost main characters. Nothing is wrong with it and great movies have been made from it (“Into the Wild”), but I usually find these characters completely tedious and can’t bring myself to identify with most of them. In point of fact, I often want to just punch them in the face and scream “Get it together!”

Because Ben is so “alone,” he finds himself beginning a sexual relationship with “the most attractive of his parents’ friends,” Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). And what a bombshell she is. Completely in touch with her own sexuality, sarcastic, funny and very, very sexy, Bancroft steals the movie from Hoffman the moment she puts her leg up on that chair.

Their interplay together first at Bancroft’s home and later at the Taft Hotel is quite funny and well written. Watching Hoffman’s awkwardness and inner turmoil as he continues to be a gentleman while Bancroft loses one item of clothing after the next works here, if only here. The moment where Bancroft becomes exasperated because Hoffman keeps stalling instead of getting them a hotel room is the best in the movie, though Hoffman’s subsequent bumbling with the desk clerk falls flat.

As the film progresses and the duo’s sexual relationship continues, it remained obvious why Ben was so attracted to Mrs. Robinson. Less clear, though, is why Mrs. Robinson chose Ben. Surely there are more interesting specimens around town who can complete a sentence for themselves. Oh well, maybe she’s into bumbling.

About an hour into the movie, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) comes home. Ben is forced by his parents to go out on a date with her and immediately falls head over heels for her…probably around the time a stripper is performing a circus trick with her breasts over Elaine’s head. The date ends badly when she finds out that he’s sleeping with her Mother, but hey, a woman seemed attracted to him for half a second…so score! He falls so head over heels for her that he declares to his parents that he plans to marry her and moves temporarily to Berkeley to stalk…er…find her.

Elaine seems like a nice girl. Ross gives her an innocent yearning that is very appealing in her limited screen time. Yes, she’s the kind of girl you want to take home to mom, even if her mom is chasing after you in a cement truck. But really, she doesn’t seem to be holding up her end of the conversation either, and with Ben that’s quite the accomplishment. Yes, I’m willing to suspend all disbelief that Ben could fall so much in love that he will follow her anywhere, but still…in comparison to Mrs. Robinson…she’s kind of sloppy seconds, no? And that whole subplot about her being engaged to another guy…really? I mean, really?

I think that I would be willing to buy into so much more if I liked Ben more than I do. Hoffman is, of course, one of the best actors in all of film, but here he’s blown away by both of the women he becomes involved with. As far as I can tell, Ben makes five decisions over the course of the entire movie, and all of them are the wrong ones. How am I supposed to like this guy or feel for him if he’s so consistently shooting himself in the foot without any thought that what he’s doing might be wrong?

Also a problem is the film’s inconsistencies with tone and pacing. At times the movie seems to be aiming for nothing more than a cheap farce, as when Hoffman uses a cross to block exit from a church, but in others “The Graduate” seems to be insisting that it is high art. Here I’m thinking about the many (and I mean many) musical interludes from Simon and Garfunkel and long beats where we do nothing but contemplate Hoffman and he contemplates…something.

In addition, while many of Nichols’ shots are ingenious (the infamous moment of Ben accusing her of trying to seduce him shot through Mrs. Robinson’s arched leg), others are just curious and out of place. Look at the shot where we begin in the glass reflection of a dining table as Mrs. Robinson and Ben are having a conversation and then pull out to see them. Why was the reflection necessary? Or a moment where Ben and Elaine try to converse in a car but are annoyed by music from the car next to them. They put the top up and close the windows, but instead of staying with them we remain outside the car for no clear reason. If the shot was closer and we could more easily make out the actors’ faces you could make a case that it doesn’t matter what they are saying since it is obvious that they are falling in love, but we can barely see them, so what is the point?

There are many smaller moments the movie gets precisely right, and because of that they are quite funny. The scene where Ben fumbles with the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hotel room door and which lights to have on or off are very well done. And I also have to make note of Murray Hamilton’s hilarious performance as the (for the most part) clueless Mr. Robinson. The role could have been one-note and tedious with the wrong actor, but Hamilton makes it work wonderfully.

I want to care about “The Graduate” and Hoffman’s lost hero, but the movie doesn’t let me. The writers and director have allowed the show to be stolen by Mrs. Robinson. Maybe it’s a good thing Ben and Elaine ran away together to Nowheresville at the finale and Mr. Robinson is divorcing her. She can move somewhere groovy like New York City and actually hold a conversation with someone.

My Score (out of 5): **

1 comment:

Hugh said...

Couldn't agree with you more. There are a couple funny lines, but I've never understood the world's fascination with this movie.