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The Graduate (1967)

by on 2011/02/09

“Do you have a special grudge against me?  Do you feel a particularly strong resentment?  Is there something I’ve said that’s caused this contempt, or is it just things I stand for that you despise?”

* * *

Regardless of my opinion, The Graduate hardly needs introducing.  A widely praised classic, it’s a portal into the uncertainty of the mid-to-late Sixties.  A frequent reference for fiction since then, it serves as a shorthand for forbidden pleasure, relentless pursuit, and Pyrrhic victory, in works as diverse as George Michael’s “Too Funky”, Wayne’s World 2, and (500) Days of Summer.

So, recognizing its impact, why don’t I enjoy it more?

Dustin Hoffman stars as Benjamin Braddock, just turning a lucky 21, fresh out of college “back east”, now living with his parents in Los Angeles.  A noted scholar and athlete, he’s suddenly come over all rudderless.  Despite or, more likely, because of the expectations around him, he has no particular ambitions, other than wanting his future to be “different”.

Enter Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner.  She offers herself to Benjamin after a party one evening.  Once over the initial shock, he submits.  It’s the kind of situation which seems tempting only until it happens.  However, he has no other interests in his life and thus spends his summer “comfortable just to drift”.  Complications arise when Ben meets Elaine (Katharine Ross), the daughter of his tragic temptress.

An immediate disconnect came in the characterization of Ben as an athlete and scholar, with a laundry list of achievements through high school and college.  I simply couldn’t accept this lost and downbeat schlub fitting the superstar profile.

The “plastics” party, celebrating his stated success, reminded me of a similar scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, also referencing plastics.  Here’s a young man pushed against his will into The Future and, despite his alleged potential, his elders all infantilize him.  Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, made to model as a bunny, Ben is cajoled into publicly demonstrating a wet suit with the admonishment, “You’re disappointing them.”

On the other hand, I could readily accept Mrs. Robinson preying on him, not because he’s admirable or attractive, but because he’s a forbidden, yet easily manipulated, target.  Which brings me to Anne Bancroft’s performance, my favourite part by far.

Mrs. Robinson is a chameleon, an attractive seductress one moment, and a warped old crone the next.  She runs the gamut of emotions, from coy bemusement early on, through stunned despair, to scornful force of vengeance.  My favourite scene was one in which she tells Benjamin, “I don’t think we have much to say to each other.”  Ironically, that single encounter said more to me than the entire rest of the movie.

The story, then, was a disconnect, and the cast of characters a mixed lot, but I had less to complain about production-wise.  Other than a couple of misaligned cuts during the Berkeley sequence, the visuals were great:  interesting camera angles, particularly the reflections in glass surfaces, through water, down long hallways; nice light and dark contrasts, use of silhouettes, and intentional obscuring; fluid editing between distinct locations, even different paths of motion, and the more abrupt inserts of glimpsed nudity.

I was not as impressed by the much-vaunted soundtrack, and that’s speaking as a fan of Paul Simon, both in his solo and Garfunkel years.  By the second half of the run time, I was well and truly sick of the “Mrs. Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair” songs, each playing at least three times throughout.  My greatest surprise was learning Dave Grusin composed the instrumental score.  Any fan of lounge music will recognize his sound, even if the name is unfamiliar.

So, at the risk of critical heresy, I’ll conclude by saying:  I don’t get it.  I never did and I still don’t.  Although I understand it, I just don’t find it fun.  That reaction may have been the filmmakers’ intent, but the point is academic.  While visually appealing, I find The Graduate less than enjoyable overall.  It’s weighty, slow, and only occasionally interesting.  It’s highest value to me is as a time capsule of its era.

Well . . . that and the fact that William Daniels (Knight Rider) and Normal Fell (Three’s Company) are in it.

* * *

Rated 14A for adult situations, language, and nudity

106 minutes

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