Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has had enough education for a lifetime, but that doesn’t stop his elders from projecting their myopic hopes and dreams onto him. “Plastics”: Was postcollegiate aimlessness ever more hilariously encapsulated than in that oft-quoted piece of nonadvice? With his stiff posture and frequently whimpering utterances, Ben comes off as the ultimate brooding nebbish, hardly the star athlete everyone says he is. He’s a forlorn imposter in his own life—one who’s drowning, you might say, considering the pervasive presence of pools and aquariums—which makes him a prime target for gloomy Real Housewife of Los Angeles County Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft).
Mike Nichols’s generational milestone has similarly alluring powers: It’s consistently fleet and funny (“Are you here for an affair, sir?”), even as it probes the heady abandon and looming hangover that typified the decade of discontent. Yet notwithstanding that famous penultimate shot (a prescient notion of what Hunter S. Thompson later characterized as the crest of the ’60s wave), this undeniable crowd-pleaser never digs particularly deep—something especially evident in the treatment of its most iconic character. As conceived, Mrs. Robinson is pure cougar caricature, all bra-strap tan lines, predatory poses and garish wardrobe—yet Bancroft makes her into a robustly tragic figure, a shattered woman saddled with a life she never wanted and all too aware of her fading bloom. That the character devolves into a cartoon shrew is disappointing, though that doesn’t nullify Bancroft’s considerable emotional brick-laying. Great performance, wrong movie: It’s befuddled Ben we’re left with, but it’s Mrs. Robinson we mourn for.
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