Returning from college somewhere in the unspecified "out East," Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock lands in sunny California and immediately enters a near-catatonic state. At a welcome-back party, his parents and their friends toast his achievements without really understanding them, and he drifts from room to room to avoid a noisy, boozy bunch who try to fill his head with nonsense about plastics and his possible bright future in them. But he doesn't want to be in plastics, even though he doesn't know what he does want. Then someone decides for him: Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson.
The wife of his father's partner, Bancroft steers Hoffman into a summer of late-night liaisons that link him intimately to the generation he'd hoped to escape, and to a life of booze, cigarettes, and unexpressed feelings. When he finally makes a real connection, it's with someone firmly out of bounds: Bancroft's daughter, played by Katharine Ross.
An unexpected smash in 1967, The Graduate found a receptive audience among Baby Boomers for its depiction of generations divided more by a gulf than a gap. It's grounded in the world of '60s California but not stuck there, which is why it keeps getting rediscovered by subsequent generations as it's dragged out for one anniversary after another. In his breakthrough role, Hoffman captures the way youthful alienation can make one emotion crash into another as excitement becomes depression becomes rage. It's a timeless performance, outdone only by Bancroft, who transforms what could be a wicked-stepmother role by finding untold depths of disappointment. In her twisted way, Bancroft is just as sympathetic as Hoffman. She clearly wants Ross to have the life she couldn't, so is it any wonder that she doesn't think the loser she seduced on a drunken whim is appropriate date material?
Director Mike Nichols lets the film unfold in unbroken takes of long, awkward exchanges that give way to highly stylized moments and time-compressing montages set to songs by Simon And Garfunkel. The disparate approaches shouldn't work together, but the film thrives on its contradictions. Nichols lets a melancholy haze settle, then lifts it for a finale so rousing that it's almost possible to miss that the hero's as confused and adrift as ever, even though he isn't alone any more.
Key features: Two sharp commentaries pair Hoffman with Ross and Nichols with famous fan Steven Soderbergh.