Strange, when the signups for this round of the series were coming up, I was voicing concerns that pop culture osmosis – by way of an ingrained canon (thanks, Boomers!) and numerous parodies, to say nothing of the influence on comedy and coming-of-age genres since (one of the first things I Googled after this was ‘was Garden State the Millennial Graduate?’) – and whodathunk, there are some things you can’t get from 2 straight hours of Letterboxd reviews and binging wiki summaries (of both the [ostensibly] academic and casual varieties), even if my knowledge of the film hasn’t changed much since I first stumbled across this spoileriffic trailer over 13 years ago…
… when finally checking out this past few weeks, I was shocked at how funny it was. Granted it’s not ha-ha gut-busting as the Other Big 1967 American Comedy The Producers (dealing with bittersweet hipsterism where that dealt with ostensibly offensive broadness, I wasn’t prepared for how much proto-cringe comedy there was in here, especially where it dealt with Ben’s awkwardness), but there was a snappiness most synopses left me out of the dark, especially when I was more focused on the saucy details of the still-scandalous love triangle (which I soon also realised was more of a love metronome).
It’s interesting watching the critiques and analyses of this as one of the Boomers’ generation gap touchstone flicks, given how they (or at least the ones alive now) have become the new old fogeys. Perhaps it can be reflected in Ebert’s reviews both contemporary and retrospective, who switched allegiance from Ben to Mrs Robinson, from identifying a supposed contemporary kindred spirit to being exasperated with his insufferability (or more cynically this). From my current vantage point as a Zillennial living in the world wrecked by both generations though, it seems more accurate to view both with about equal disdain. Maybe that’s why the infamous plastics scene takes on a new unintentional symbolism for me now; where Ebert now interpreted it as good advice (and to be fair it is, at least on a personal scale for someone as him “who lacks creative instincts and is destined to become a corporate drudge”), I can’t help but think of my current climate change woes, brought about by all the resulting garbage. What a great future that turned out to be.
Mostly though, watching this over 50 years after the fact, I was struck (and sometimes unnerved, given both Ben’s creepier tendencies, and some meta-aspects of Dustin Hoffman’s casting coming through) by how much I related to Ben, while also finding him a far more pathetic figure than pop culture had me believe. Even discounting the two lens above that cast a more unflattering light on him, he’s way too lightweight, and the pivotal moments where he tries to wrestle control and (ostensibly?) moral high ground are slowly met with quick punishment for his follies (even if the second, more iconic one, allows him some Pyrrhic victory). Yet the uncertainty and disillusionment he’s had at the crossroads in his life, and the ensuing wrong turns he’s taken, just struck a chord with me, having recently been a graduate myself and stuck in literal limbo with the current pandemic pretty much leaving me in similar states of ennui.
There are flaws of course, most pertinently how the film treats Elaine. She’s shockingly passive, and seems more like a springboard of passivity-turned reactivity as attuned to Ben (his badgering, if not downright stalking, scenes were not as deplorable as I initially feared, though they ended up being far more pathetic then I’d imagined!). In fact the film kind of reached a sputtering with that last third after the momentous climax with the Revelation and breaking of the Love Metronome, which seems tossed-off in ideas on how to reach the famous ending scene, and to be fair it does end on a much higher note that I’m inclined to forgive its plodding pace around there (and it was nice to have some neat jokes in between – “I’ll ask him: ‘Are you armed?'”, “I’m Dr Smith’s brother – “Reverend Smith!”)
The ennui, the listlessness, the callousness, douchebaggery and the realisations that may come too little too late, it feels apt to cap this off by quoting another scene between Ben and Elaine on a mode of transport:
“You’re living at home now. Is that right?”
“Do you know what you’re going to do?”
“Are you going to graduate school?”
“Do you always drive like this?!”