Even in a cinema rife with antiheroes, Duddy Kravitz remains an irreconcilable case study. As fully, boundlessly embodied by the young Richard Dreyfuss, he’s an 18-year-old schemer who’s determined to rise above the low expectations set by his father (Jack Warden) and Montreal’s Jewish community. Taking to heart his grandfather’s declaration that “a man without land is nobody,” Duddy resolves to purchase a pristine Quebecois lake and develop it into a resort. From tip-chasing busboy to outré bar-mitzvah home-movie mogul in less than a year, our protagonist improbably hustles up property with the help of his French-Canadian girlfriend (Micheline Lactôt) and an epileptic associate (a coltish Randy Quaid), only to risk losing everyone following a string of Machiavellian sins.
What makes The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz great is also what makes it exasperating—namely its nonjudgmental dedication to the character’s point of view, petty amoralities and all. Canadian director Ted Kotcheff, who went on to helm Hollywood plums like First Blood, uses Duddy’s abrasive charisma to illuminate the motivations and pitfalls of postwar Jewish enterprise, where self-ownership in a gentile’s world can feel like an act of vengeance. Somehow both ingratiating and repellant, Dreyfuss plays Duddy as a cackling force of nature, as shiksa-horny as Portnoy and as tragic as any striver left alone with everything he ever wanted.
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