'Measure of a Man': Film Review
Jim Loach adapts 'One Fat Summer,' Robert Lipsyte's novel about a chubby kid trying to rise to life's challenges.
Less a coming-of-age tale than a story laying the foundation for that kind of change, Jim Loach's Measure of a Man looks at a few months in the life of a teen who is increasingly uncomfortable in the role of chubby misfit. Though set further back in time than summer-break fare of recent years like Adventureland, The Way Way Back, and Amazon's Red Oaks — this time we're in 1976, an update from Robert Lipsyte's novel One Fat Summer's 1942 setting — the pic's end-of-something vibe and identification with its young male protagonist inevitably recall them, reminding us that those stories were funnier and more persuasive in most ways. Though enjoyable on its terms, the film (the sophomore feature from TV vet Loach, who is Ken Loach's son) will have difficulty attracting attention.
Blake Cooper plays Bobby, whose introductory voiceover tells us what we'll know just by looking at him: While other kids yearned for it, he says, "I hated summer vacation" and was constantly looking for ways to hide. Most literally, that means covering up his overweight body when other adolescents went shirtless at the lake. But it also means lingering in the easy security of a friends-only relationship with the girl he clearly loves: Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell), a sharp-witted kid who has been his companion every year since their families began spending summers at Rumson Lake.
Joanie's bigger-than-average nose is the kind of quirk that makes her otherwise generically pretty face beautiful. But only the viewer and Bobby see things that way: She's bullied about it, and like plenty of Jewish girls before her, has internalized her mother's dissatisfaction. When Joanie tells Bobby her family has to leave the lake for a few weeks to stay the city, Bobby's the only one who doesn't understand that's so she can heal from a nose job with no one around to see.
Alone at the lake for the first time, with his parents (Luke Wilson, Judy Greer) in a tense marital moment and his sister (Liana Liberato) running off alone with boys, Bobby finds a way to occupy himself: He gets a job tending the grounds of a huge house belonging to Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland), a courtly but demanding man who from the start believes it's his place to correct this stranger's deficiencies in grammar and gumption. Overenunciating his words like someone who's had to claw his way into the upper class (and he has), Kahn pushes Bobby into begging for a job he isn't qualified to do, then cuts his pay in half when his performance is less than perfect.
With Joanie away, interactions with the old man will define the summer for Bobby. But however well it is set up, this relationship feels thinner than it should, like something that's just starting to be meaningful when it's time for the movie to start anticipating Labor Day and summer's end. Master/servant distance is an essential part of the dynamic, of course, but Loach and screenwriter David Scearce (who co-wrote Tom Ford's A Single Man) don't show us enough ways in which the old man's cultivated self-respect is transmitted to the schlubby boy.
Along the way, Bobby deals with a townie bully named Willy (Beau Knapp) whose meanness clearly derives from insecurities about not belonging in his own hometown. The script finds ways to subtly suggest that Willy, Joanie, Bobby and even Dr. Kahn are all coping in different ways with their status as outsiders. But the synthesis is underwhelming onscreen where it might have resonated in Lipsyte's book. Here, Measure of a Man becomes a mildly nostalgic, mildly romantic entry in a genre that, more than most, requires that the viewer feels a personal connection to the misfit protagonist onscreen.
Production company: Taylor Lane Productions
Distributor: Great Point Media
Cast: Blake Cooper, Donald Sutherland, Judy Greer, Luke Wilson, Danielle Rose Russell, Beau Knapp, Luke Benward, Liana Liberato
Director: Jim Loach
Screenwriter: David Scearce
Producer: Christian Taylor
Executive producers: Robart Halmi, Jr., Jim Reeve, David Scearce
Director of photography: Denson Baker
Production designer: David J. Bomba
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editor: Dany Cooper
Composers: Ilan Eshkeri, Tim Wheeler
Casting director: Eyde Belasco
Rated PG-13, 100 minutes