Note: A version of this review originally appeared at DVDTalk.com in 2007. The screengrabs presented here are also taken from that disc.
The Graduate is a film with a long-reaching reputation. In 1967, it made Dustin Hoffman a star, as well as catapulting the careers of director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry into a whole other stratosphere. Even people who have never seen it are probably familiar with its famous "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me" moment. Shot under Anne Bancroft's very sexy knee, framed to suggest the vice-like grip of lust Hoffman's character will soon find himself in (and suggestive of so, so much more), it's been parodied so often, it's become one of those moments that people know even if they don't know why.
For as funny as The Graduate is, what is most surprising is how shocking and potent it still is today. The subject still seems taboo enough to cause an eyebrow or two to raise, and the transitional doubt and malaise that Hoffman portrays as Benjamin Braddock is still felt by new college graduates in the 21st century. One can even see a little of Rushmore's Max Fisher in Benjamin's melancholy stare.
If anyone doesn't know, the plot of The Graduate revolves around twenty-one-year-old Benjamin returning home after completing his Bachelor's program. Like so many young men before or since, despite having put so much work into getting the diploma, he doesn't know what he is going to do with it. The past feels like a con, and the future a scary game where, as he will explain, the rules are made up on the fly. Dodging his own celebratory party, which is populated entirely by friends of his parents, Benjamin runs into Mrs. Robinson (a slinky Anne Bancroft). Sensing his confusion, Mrs. Robinson sets her sights on the boy, luring him into an illicit affair and ushering him into manhood. It's no accident that her wardrobe is full of animal prints. She sets upon the hopeless grad like a predator. Hoffman is hysterical as the reluctant lover, so easily manipulated in his fumbling cluelessness.
Eventually, though, Benjamin is going to have to quit lounging around the pool and do something with himself. Both Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) and Mommy and Daddy (Elizabeth Wilson and William Daniels) think the answer is in dating Elaine (Katharine Ross), the Robinson daughter, home for the summer from Berkeley. This is a crossroads for Benjamin, as dating her daughter is the one thing Mrs. Robinson asked him not to do. For as much as she could be seen as the criminal in the movie, you have to feel sorry for the woman when Benjamin forges ahead with his asinine plan. Really, her only crime was expecting a dopey kid to realize how damaging such an action would be.
Naturally, Benjamin falls in love with Elaine, probably because she's the only person his own age he's talked to since he got home and thus she can understand him. Complications arise, and Benjamin is finally dumped into the deep end. Pathetic flailing leads to a crazy romantic gesture. It's action at last for our hero, with the reward being eternal happiness.
Or is it? The final shot of The Graduate is famous for its ambiguity, for the sudden deflation. How you choose to see Benjamin and Elaine's future is up to you, and this open-ended finale is one of the main reasons we're all still so intrigued with this quirky little comedy.
If quirky is the right word. I have always found The Graduate downright strange. Benjamin's creepy stalking, the non-sequiters that seem to be the only way the clearly demarcated adult world can reach back to Benjamin's generation, Buck Henry as the contemptuous hotel clerk, the dumbass diving suit. (Another Rushmore reference: Dustin Hoffman at the bottom of the pool is the direct antecedent of Bill Murray at the bottom of the pool.) Nichols and cinematographer Robert Surtees (The Sting) almost always keep their camera at a distance. If the lovers are on the bed, we are on the floor looking up. In the church, we see Benjamin's demonstrative endeavors from far away, down at the pulpit.
And yet, there are flashes of a more mobile creativity yearning to break through, just as Benjamin is struggling for his own niche. There is the silent scene from within the diving mask, the random cutting that reflects his exploding nerves the first time he sees Mrs. Robinson naked, the ebb and flow montage of their summer of love, from days of boredom to nights of business-like passion. The movie has its own rhythm and feel that no one since has been able to accurately clone, try as they might.
Nearly fifty years on, and still The Graduate can't be replicated. Though arguably the coming-of-age of the coming-of-age motion picture, it's still the benchmark we can't get past. In the contest of early adult awkwardness, Benjamin Braddock still holds the world's record.