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The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

by on 2013/07/12

Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

“Dream when you’re feeling poor.”

* * * *

In a previous life (of sorts) I took a degree in philosophy. However, despite having studied four years, I now remember little, except for things like the value of logic, defining terms, and a popular gem from Socrates, that the admission of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. It’s an idea I often return to, and one which keeps me satisfied – while I might ask questions ad nauseam – it’s doubtful I’m at much risk of losing my mind.

On the other hand, philosophy never helped me to understand those who have.

Then along came The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a movie which spoke to me. I didn’t love what it was saying, as such, but I found it very helpful in understanding the occasional wingnuts I’ve known in my life.

Duddy Kravitz (Richard Dreyfuss of American Graffiti) is a dreamer. Not in a harmless Elwood Dowd manner, nor with the pathos of Walter Mitty. He’s desperately ambitious, at first merely irritating, then later more dangerous, in a sprawling, life-wrecking sort of way.

Growing up in a poor Jewish neighbourhood of early/mid-20th century Montreal, he claims to have graduated high school, then done university at night school. As the story progresses, it’s easy to believe he’s done neither of those things. But anything goes in his entrepreneurial money-grubbing schemes.

At a critical point, he takes to heart the idea he must acquire land and, to that end, he’ll do anything, deceive anyone, to achieve this straw man goal. For all his studied socializing, he’s basically a coarse vulgarian, thoughtless, mouthy, brash, and volatile. Any time he shows a sign of redemption, he subverts it again. He’s that mystifying combination of confidence and ignorance, possessed of the impulse to market himself when he has so little worth selling.

There’s a quality to Dreyfuss’ acting which sometimes comes across as sneering, and never so much (to my knowledge) as here with Duddy. It could account for his later-professed embarrassment with the role. Manic in the extreme, enablers may call him “full of life”, but his unsympathetic character makes it hard to cut him much slack. Juvenile, frantic, desperate, and nearly constantly scratching himself, he’s a bundle of compulsions perhaps analogous to binge eating and self-harm. (It’s of interest to note that Dreyfuss himself has since claimed to be bipolar. I wonder at the disorder’s part in all this.)

Yet there’s far more cautionary tale here than a performance interpreting tics. His actions are a practical frontal assault on an introverted observer. Watching him gamble is an obstacle course of gloating and temper tantrums, despite a reasonable balance of wins and losses. He accuses others of the faults he demonstrates. He’s a slapstick prankster and hypocrite who gives but cannot take. For that matter, to invert the expression, he also takes more than he gives, occasionally (and temporarily) charitable to salve his conscience before moving on.

The production reflects the mannerisms of its titular anti-hero, relentlessly driving forward, but jumping in time and lacking cohesion, with jarring transitions inconsistently marked by wipes. High speed pacing, especially early on, is accompanied by jangly tunes, novelties likely plucked from an old music library.

At the very least, one could say The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is rarely laggy, boring, or pandering. It’s committed to its protagonist, however irrational, and suggests a slow fade between obnoxious and mentally ill. At best, it transcends Schadenfreude entertainment, lending insight into the conduct of the delusional . . . a helpful guide in spotting your local loony.

* * * *

Rated 14A

121 minutes

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