Poor Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman).
He just graduated from the prestigious East Coast college of his choice. Now he’s back home in suburban Los Angeles, living rent-free in his parents’ house. Ben has no pressure to get a job, so he lounges in the pool by day and drives around in his Italian sports car by night.
But poor Ben – poor baby – he isn’t happy. He’s concerned about his future. Boo-hoo.
If he could manage to take his head out of his rear end for just a few minutes, he might think about the poorer boys his age who were drafted and fighting in Vietnam. He might think about the people in his own city who are penned up in bad neighborhoods because they had the misfortune of being born with different color skin. But Ben is far too self-absorbed for feelings like perspective and empathy.
“The Graduate” is a strange movie that hasn’t aged well. Buck Henry’s script is original, engaging, and sometimes amusing. But the characters are poorly written, the plot is improbable, and the lead character is deeply contemptible.
You probably know the story. Ben’s dad’s law partner is Mr. Robinson. One night, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) seduces Ben. Ben is into it and they begin meeting nightly at a nearby hotel.
Hey, I made plenty of mistakes with women growing up, too, so I’m not judging 21-year old Ben too hard.
However, Ben goes from regular selfish kid to legendary super jerk when he goes on a date with the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine.
The one date goes pretty well and Ben decides that they are going to get married. Elaine, it seems, doesn’t get a say in the matter.
Also, Ben never considers how ludicrous it is to marry a woman when you’ve broken up her parents’ marriage. Elaine has considered that, though, and she leaves abruptly to go away to Berkeley.
And that’s when Ben becomes a stalker. There’s a fine line between self-absorbed and dangerously obsessive, and Dustin Hoffman’s character crosses it in the last act.
By the way, there is nothing wrong with a movie having a selfish, awful lead character. The problem with “The Graduate” is that I can’t tell whether we are supposed to sympathize with Ben or loathe him and root for his downfall.
That isn’t just a problem of clarity on the part of director Mike Nichols; that’s a problem of morality. Entitled rich guys who view women as possessions are a menace to society. Dustin Hoffman’s character needs to be seen as a miserable villain, not a hero who wins in the end with his greatest act of selfishness.
It all starts with gratitude. If you are 21, healthy, and have parents who support you, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Quit moping, count your blessings, and get a job.