Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Short Take: The Graduate

Chalk this view up to Gen-X antipathy to a Baby Boomer favorite, but The Graduate has dated--badly. Mike Nichols' 1967 film is one of the pictures that revolutionized Hollywood in the late 1960s. It helped open the door to alienation as a central theme in American filmmaking, and was key to the rise of the anti-hero as a protagonist. Dustin Hoffman, its leading man, led the way for a new generation of stars--Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, among others--who didn't conform to the romanticized masculine ideal of the films that came before. And the picture remains the most commercially successful comedy ever produced in the United States. It's unfortunate to look at it now and find such a trite and clumsily made effort. Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a recent graduate of an East Coast university. The film begins as he returns home to Los Angeles. He's staying with his upper-class parents while deciding on what to do next. It's not long before he begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner. Things get complicated when he falls in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross). Hoffman and Bancroft are in fine comic form. He uses his earnest stare, nasal voice, and stammering delivery to hilarious effect, and her sleek brazenness is devilishly witty. The affair, though, is thinly written. Mrs. Robinson's initial failed seduction and the pair's first pre-tryst scene are quite prolonged, but the humor is in the actors' contrasting demeanors; there's not a single memorable line or gag. A later scene, where she wants sex only to be thwarted by his desire for a conversation, is undercut by the gaudily implausible dialogue. The script, credited to Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, doesn't know what it wants to do with the affair, and the picture more or less drops it to shift to Benjamin's pursuit of the daughter. The romance with her is even more weakly developed. It often comes across like she's humoring a stalker, and taking it too far. Mike Nichols' directing is what results when an ambitious filmmaker has no idea what he's after. Several shots and staging choices call attention to themselves, but they don't cohere into a larger vision. Several moments are played for hyperbole, and the effect is cartoonish. Nichols does his best work in the party scene after the opening titles. Benjamin is the guest of honor, but the attendees are all his parents' friends, and the divide between him and them is deftly rendered. (The scene, which dramatizes the famous "generation gap" between young Baby Boomers and their forebears, probably did the most to earn the picture its acclaim.) The film also benefits from the decision to feature several Simon & Garfunkel recordings, including "The Sound of Silence," "Scarborough Fair," and, written for the film, "Mrs. Robinson." Other cast members include Murray Hamilton, William Daniels, and Norman Fell. Robert Surtees provided the attractive open-air cinematography. The screenplay is based on a novel by Charles Webb.

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