Blake Cooper, who plays the overweight and vulnerable teenager at the heart of the here’s-what-I-learned-on-my-summer-vacation movie Measure of a Man, has a future playing beta males. With his combination of smarts and insecurities, in due time he’ll start to land the roles that Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera are starting to age out of, the sort that John Cusack typified the generation before.
For now, though, he’s saddled with feckless résumé builders like Measure of a Man, certainly not to be confused with Stephane Brize’s 2015 French masterpiece of the same name. This Measure of a Man is a film so devoid of bite and personality that it feels written by a computer.
Cooper plays Bobby Marks, a joyless 17-year-old in 1976 who helpfully informs us in the movie’s leadoff voice-over narration that, “I hated summer vacation.” And what’s not to hate?
Languishing in a rented coastal cottage surrounded by confident, buff beach bodies, he’s inevitably the fattest kid at any gathering. His sole friend Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell), with whom he is normally joined at the platonic hip all summer, is leaving town with her family this year. And his father, Marty (Luke Wilson), is an needling, unsupportive prick who frequently abandons the family for late-night “work projects.”
Luckily for Bobby, he’ll soon discover a father figure of sorts. Eschewing summer camp, he instead responds to a job posting to keep the grounds of a rich executive’s estate, for $2 an hour. His employer is Dr. Kahn, played by Donald Sutherland in irony-free Mr. Miyagi mode, dispensing self-help aphorisms and fortune-cookie platitudes at the drop of his panama hat. He teaches Bobby discipline through tough love, and lets him make his own mistakes and correct them. Wax on, wax off. Morgan Freeman, presumably, was unavailable.
Pretty soon, Bobby will have the opportunity to put Dr. Kahn’s sage advice to the test when dealing with a trio of local bullies — townie greasers straight out central casting, with eff-you sideburns and cigarettes positioned behind their ears.
Measure of a Man’s more direct inspirations aren’t the Karate Kid movies so much as the self-development summer dramedies of the Aughts, like The Way Way Back and Adventureland, but it’s a colorless version of the same.
Director Jim Loach, son of the great U.K. auteur Ken, exhibits little of his father’s raw, unsentimental honesty and confrontational formalism. In keeping its rating to PG-13, its depiction of bullying is as sanitized as its dialogue, all presented in a middling cinematic vernacular.
Besotted with clichés from the opening line to the closing image, Measure of a Man updates Robert Lipsyte’s 1950s-set, semiautobiographical novel One Fat Summer into the sort of rote pabulum that would make Holden Caulfield — or Bobby Marks himself — retch. The script, by David Scearce, is purely schematic, dutifully resolving the various familial, career and romantic challenges of Bobby’s life until every narrative schism is as perfectly aligned as Dr. Kahn’s manicured lawn.
Measure of Man’s audience is seemingly the real-life Bobby Markses out there, who could use a self-esteem boost and perhaps their own philosopher-benefactor to set the world aright. But when the movie’s actions are so implausible, its dialogue so hollow, its emotions so cloying, that a kid with any degree of intelligence will recognize falsity when he sees it.
In a coming-of-age movie renaissance that brought us Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird and — aging the protags down a bit — The Florida Project in the last year alone, Measure of a Man is weak tea indeed.
MEASURE OF A MAN. Director: Jim Loach; Cast: Blake Cooper, Donald Sutherland, Judy Greer, Luke Wilson, Liana Liberato, Beau Knapp, Danielle Rose Russell; Distributor: Great Point Media; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Today at most area theaters