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Review: “The Graduate” (1967)

The_GraduateSometimes we choose the films we watch, but the most important ones seem to choose us. And so it was with “The Graduate,” one of those timeless classics I kept meaning to see but never did. This always seemed a grave error in judgment, waiting so long to meet Benjamin Braddock. Then “The Graduate” finally cycled up from its lowly queue ranking, I watched it, at age 28, and I knew. I saw this movie at precisely the right time.

Oops. Was that too crunchy, maybe too reflective? Absolutely. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) would hate it. He’s not that reflective, lives mostly inside his mind. So why should I wax all philosophical? Refer back to “precisely the right time.” Bittersweet and poignant, “The Graduate” is a film best enjoyed after the angst of the early 20s — OK, the whole of one’s 20s — has passed. In those youthful moments where The Future and all its infinite possibilities are terrifying, perspective doesn’t exist. All that does is fear, the kind that doesn’t go away until you stop feeding it and it wanders away.  

In Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” we don’t get to see that transition for Benjamin. Right on. Benjamin, in Hoffman’s estimation, is the listless owner of some unnamed of bachelor’s degree and one of those real-world useless fellowship accolades with a name no one can keep straight. Back in his parents’ California home, he’s forced into one party after another in his honor, and each one makes him more and more uncomfortable. Everyone has big opinions about what Benjamin should do with his life (one word: “Plastics”), but he hasn’t the slightest clue. All his frustrations — “I’m worried about my future” he says pointedly — are ignored, and this only magnifies his anxiety. 

Then comes the summer-long Affair Heard ‘Round the World (it lives on in infamy through Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”) with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a confident, attractive, overtly sexual friend of Benjamin’s parents. In a dumber film, Mrs. Robinson would play teacher and impart scads of life lessons to the shy, inexperienced Benjamin, who’d gobble them up and grow into a mature, successful businessman. But who wants to see that movie? Certainly not Nichols; thus, the affair serves mostly to exacerbate Benjamin’s confusion, mixes up the concepts of dreams and sexual desires in his brain. Not good for a regular 20something guy, let alone one who’s as rudderless as Benjamin. Then things get worse: He falls for Mrs. Robinson’s young daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). This is an odd plot point, one that could be a little soap opera-esque without Nichols’ knack for finding the right pitch (helped along by Simon and Garfunkel’s deceptively peppy score).

So the web of Benjamin’s world is, ahem, decidedly tangled. Sex tends to do that, particularly if it happens with the best looking of all your parents’ friends. (Eek.) Yet these entanglements don’t matter nearly as much as the way they affect Benjamin. “The Graduate” is first and foremost a coming-of-age film, for though Benjamin’s technically an adult his emotional development hasn’t come close to catching up with his age. And the strange escapades in his life don’t produce the effects we might predict. To a degree, his affair with Mrs. Robinson does enlighten him — he taps into his sexuality in a way he hasn’t yet. But Benjamin thinks his affair with Mrs. Robinson will mean something. She’s bored and wants sex. (Bancroft does a wonderful job of not backing away from Mrs. Robinson’s palpable sexuality.) Then he believes his love — however misplaced and desperate — for Elaine will give him purpose. We get the idea that Benjamin’s seeking the right things; he’s just looking in the wrong places.

This much becomes clear in the ending (one of the best in cinematic history), and in Hoffman’s distracted performance. Hoffman closes down his face and shrinks his shoulders to play Benjamin, who’s separated himself from reality. He’s spinning around with no sense of direction until the end. Even then, when he’s learned something, he doesn’t seem to know what. Neither do we … and that’s just as it should be.

Grade: A

Quick Picks: “Revolutionary Road,” “Last Chance Harvey”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- with equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

“Revolutionary Road” (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon)

Deferring dreams, poet Langston Hughes warned us over half a century ago, is a messy, even explosive business. Nowhere is that truth more evident than Sam Mendes’ gorgeously lensed, powerfully acted “Revolutionary Road.” In fact, Frank (DiCaprio), a dissatisfied businessman, and April, his deeply unhappy wife, have a powder keg of a suburban New England 1950s marriage — she wants a new life in Paris and will do anything to make it happen; he wants the change, too, but lacks the guts to leave the comfortable, settled job and life he knows. All that dissatisfaction translates into an atmosphere of unrelenting tension and despair communicated beautifully by DiCaprio and Winslet. DiCaprio finds the right mix of uncontrollable anger and wordless despair in Frank, a kind of Everyman who doesn’t like to look back but can’t quite move forward, either. He won’t be honest with himself, the mentally ill son (a superbly caustic Shannon) of a neighbor harshly points out, so he’s just stuck. As for Winslet, well, this might be the best acting she’s done (which is really saying something). She’s equal parts bitterness and vulnerability as April, and her eyes alone — sad but anxious, like those of a deer trapped in headlights — are enough to make “Revolutionary Road” much more than some whiny diatribe on suburban life. This one hits right where it hurts: the heart.

Grade: A

“Last Chance Harvey” (Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson)

It’s perhaps not an accident that Hoffman plays a commercial jingle writer in “Last Chance Harvey,” a quietly charming romantic comedy that at times, most unfortunately, seems like a clever commercial ruined by loud, formulaic music. On second thought, no, that’s exactly what Joel Hopkins’ movie is. That’s a pity, too, because actors don’t come much more likable, charming, or deserving of a leading role than Hoffman and Thompson. Still, “Last Chance Harvey” isn’t quite a lost cause, probably because the aforementioned leads make — pardon, ahem, the pun — beautiful music together. Hoffman is Harvey, a divorced, failed jazz pianist-turned-jingle maker in London for his slightly estranged daughter’s wedding. At Heathrow, he meets Kate (Thompson), a survey taker who’s just weathered a really, really bad blind date. There aren’t sparks, exactly, but there is a conversation that, Roger Ebert might say, “threatens to continue for a lifetime.” The words turn into new friendship, then genuine affection, then trust, then love. The chief joy of “Last Chance Harvey” is watching that slow, satisfying bloom — and Hoffman and Thompson are up to the task. Hoffman nails Harvey’s moving transformation from dejection to hope, and nobody covers stark vulnerability with awkward humor quite like the divine Thompson. Seeing them stumble, then walk tentatively into romance feels like a breakthrough, and one bright enough to counter the “dramatic plot points” and cutesy background tunes. They don’t make romantic comedies like this anymore.

Grade: B+