B.A. in Malaise, Expected: The Graduate

Out of the past and my unending resentment of the goddamn Cinema 7 for not playing Hot Tub Time Machine comes this look at The Graduate, which I’ve been forced to conclude is either a film of its time that hasn’t aged well or one I’ve failed to understand, despite my best efforts. It’s hard to tell which, considering the timeliness of my reviewing the film: In less time than I care to admit, I, too, will have returned home to Los Angeles after graduating from a mysterious college on the east coast. Words fail to convey my great hope that I find life after college less disenchanting than does Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the title character.

The Graduate works best as a portrait of ’60s-era disillusionment, something no character showcases more clearly than Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). We can tell almost instantly, just from the tone of her voice, what she’s up to: First the ride home from Ben, the request that he come inside, have a drink, listen to some music, and answer a series of personal questions. She’s long ago stopped caring about being subtle or preserving appearance; life for her is unfulfilling, and she’s looking for a distraction. We suspect what she’s doing before Ben does, but it’s not until he says something that these suspicions are confirmed—we know, but we don’t.

Mrs. Robinson’s resignation and unhappiness are exhibited best during a conversation she and Ben have in the hotel room that hosts their frequent trysts. What starts as an attempt by Ben to get to know her in the non-Biblical sense turns into an argument about her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), whom Ben later starts dating. Mrs. Robinson’s curt, monosyllabic replies to Ben’s questions speak volumes: “How do you feel about [your husband]?” Ben asks her. “I don’t,” she responds. The best moment in the film is the silence which, a few minutes later, closes this scene as the two of them undress in opposite sides of the room without so much as a glance at one another.

And what of Ben? Well, he’s a strange one. Established within the first few minutes of the film as anxious and passive, we are told through the chorus of guests talking over him at his own graduation party that he distinguished himself while at college; it’s also clear from his reactions to these people that he feels lost in more ways than one. Simply put, Ben is a goal-oriented person with nothing to strive for. His temperament is underscored when, at his 21st birthday (a scene which takes place just minutes after his graduation party), his discomfort around the people who apparently make up his daily life has only grown more acute.

It is still difficult for me, despite all this, to wrap my head around Ben in any meaningful way. My immediate problem, I suppose, is that I don’t much like him. What’s worse is that, despite the apparent similarity of our situations, I can’t even even sympathize with him. Almost nothing he does makes sense to me. An exception is when he’s speaking to Elaine on their first date: “It’s like I’ve been playing some kind of game,” he says, “but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people—no, I mean no one makes them up, they seem to have made themselves up.” After the incessant awkwardness and passivity that have thus far defined him, Ben finally gives us a detailed take on his worldview, which until now has been limited to “I’m a little worried about my future” repeated as nauseam. But what’s he so worried about? We see through his behavior that his post-college malaise runs deep, but the only evidence we’re given for his anomie is a brand-new car, and long days sipping poolside beers that slowly, lazily turn into nights spent with Mrs. Robinson at an upscale hotel somewhere in downtown L.A. This is an upper-middle class male with a college education who, after having an affair with his parents’ friend, decides to abscond with her daughter—what feelings he actually evokes are mostly negative.

Having an unlikeable protagonist is fine if our sympathy and understanding are pointed elsewhere. The problem, then, is that I can’t figure out where, or who, that might be. Mrs. Robinson is the only character I find myself caring about at all. Outwardly flawed, we see what’s not to like about her before coming to understand her as the most complex and interesting character in the film. Elaine, on the other hand, is practically an afterthought: Ben goes from actively trying to alienate her to miraculously falling in love with her for reasons that are either implicit or nonexistent. Is she simply the next accomplishment he can add to his name? Their relationship ends up being the focus of the film, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why I’m supposed to root for the two of them when I find myself thinking that the film’s lost souls—Ben and Mrs. Robinson—may be a better pair.

    • Sola
    • April 7th, 2010

    that’s funny, i always thought mrs. robinson and ben were better together than elaine and ben; their relationship never made sense to me. i think the writer came up with the idea of the ending scene in the wedding chapel and the bus, which stands on its own as enjoyable, and worked backwards from there.

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