In the coming-of-age drama Measure of a Man, a chubby teen named Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) endures one of the most gruesome summers at a lake since Friday the 13th.
He has a crush on a girl (Danielle Rose Russell) who restricts him to the friend zone, he’s targeted for abuse by muscle-bound “townies” who hate vacationers, and he’s starting to sense that the arguments between his mom (Judy Greer) and dad (Luke Wilson) are more than mere squabbling.
Dad also wants him to be a camp counselor, but Bobby objects — because it means swimming, and that means taking off his shirt and revealing his pudgy frame to the world.
So, Bobby answers an ad for a summer job, doing landscaping work at the lakeside estate of the imperious and wealthy Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland), who over the course of the summer instructs Bobby in areas of life and maturity referenced in the movie’s title.
Also, Dr. Kahn teaches him how to run a lawn mower — a vintage and slightly terrifying machine that is this period movie’s best artifact. Measure of a Man is set in 1970s, so we are reacquainted with the seductive curves of the Plymouth Volare. Also, there’s a running bit about Bobby reaching out to his would-be girlfriend via walkie-talkie.
Cooper is an appealing actor, and his character is easy to root for. But while the movie serves as a pleasant piece of nostalgia, it’s not very deeply felt, and mostly serves to remind us of other, better movies that have covered similar territory, like Adventureland.
Though based on the 1977 book One Fat Summer by Robert Lipsyte (it has the feel of a memoir), its story line is strikingly similar to that of The Way Way Back, a movie that had better writing, more resonant and sharply drawn characters, and some stand-out performances.
Measure of a Man, by contrast, feels like half measures. The mentor/pupil or surrogate father/son relationship between Bobby and Dr. Kahn, for instance, always promises more than it delivers. Bobby receives lessons in self-confidence, punctuality, hard work, bullies, even labor negotiation — but in the end, we don’t really feel that Bobby has changed much at all. He was a pretty good kid to begin with. (The screenplay also hints at a physical transformation not realized on screen).
The movie also has an unsympathetic view of disgruntled blue-collar locals, led by a fearsome townie played by Beau Knapp, who registered so vividly as Blueface in The Nice Guys (Russell Crowe: “You know that color doesn’t come off, right?”).
The movie has scant interest in the origins of the class resentment. Which is notable, given that the movie is directed by Jim Loach, son of Ken, who’s made a career of movies in the U.K. that examine the working class with great nuance and empathy.
Measure of a Man
- Directed by Jim Loach. With Blake Cooper, Beau Knapp, Donald Sutherland. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
- Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
- Parents guide: PG-13
- Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse