Measure of a Man wants to be a summer coming-of-age story about a self-conscious boy finding his confidence with the guidance of adult mentors, run-ins with cartoonish bullies, a budding romance, and good old fashioned hard work. Instead what results is a genre pastiche that combines everything familiar about summer films, but neglects to make all those great pieces coalesce into a meaningful whole.
Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) and his family summer in a lake community each year. It’s a trip that Bobby dreads because while the rest of the well-to-do swim freely in their summer best, Bobby is too concerned with hiding his overweight body with oversized shirts. His only refuge is a friendship with another family summer vacationer, Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell), who isn’t the least bit unsightly by real world standards, but in movie world has a slightly large nose. The size of her nose, and the size of Bobby’s waist means they can be friends. But just as the summer kicks off, Joanie leaves with her family unexpectedly, making Bobby alone and in need of something to do. Enter Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland), and his large house in need of a grounds keeper. Unwilling to go shirtless at a camp all summer, Bobby signs on to do lawn work he isn’t qualified to do, but like most starchy old men who’ve been through life’s wringer, Dr. Kahn finds Bobby’s schlubby enthusiasm endearing, and takes him under his wing. This squeezes out opportunities for some of the local toughs who have worked on the property before, making Bobby’s already tenuous relationship with them even more volatile.
Bobby’s relationship with Dr. Kahn feels like it should be the focal point of major character growth for both men but by the end of the film, it’s unclear how they influence each other. Besides calloused hands (which Joanie sees as a mark of manliness) there’s little Bobby acquires from Dr. Kahn that feels earned. In fact, all of the components of this film feel significant in the moment but instead of weaving a tapestry of a life-changing summer for Bobby, most of it feels like a bunch of loose threads that fall by the wayside. Just as strange is the relationship between Bobby’s parents (Judy Greer and Luke Wilson) who are on the brink of divorce but the impact on Bobby and his sister barely registers in their actions. Even Bobby’s run-ins with the community bullies feel a little off, and his reconciliation with them comes a little too swiftly (and with a hint of blackmail) to feel like a win on his part. The outsider status of most of the characters in this film is apparent, I just wish more was done to beef up the importance of that connection between them and what it means for them to embrace it.
It’s also worth mentioning that this film takes place in 1976, and we’re even told about the events surrounding the bicentennial. Again, like most every other facet of this film, it feels like a momentous detail but the impact never registers. Besides a nod to Bobby’s mother’s newfound feminism (which may or may not be the crux of her marital problems) and a rather catchy soundtrack, the time period this movie takes place in hardly matters except to be nostalgic.
I wish I could say more in this film’s favor because the truth is there are components here to work with to make a perfectly delightful teen summer film including a charismatic lead in Blake Cooper. But unlike a great summer romance, there’s little here that’s memorable.
Measure of a Man opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.