Appellate Judge Tom Becker will be a big boy after dinner.
Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner, Nobody Waved Good-bye) is a Big Boy now—at least, he's trying to be. The 19-year-old has a job at the New York Public Library, thanks to his father (Rip Torn, Men in Black), who runs the place, and his own apartment, thanks to his mother (Geraldine Page, A Trip to Bountiful). Well, it's not really an apartment, it's a room in a boarding house run by the spinsterish Miss Thing (Julie Harris, Voyage of the Damned)—who reports Bernard's comings and goings to his mother—but it's his, after a fashion.
But what Bernard wants more than anything is a girl—and not just any girl. Bernard's got his sights set on cold but sexy go-go dancer Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman, Walking Tall). She's the girl of his dreams, and he'll do anything to be close to her—even putting up with the nightmare that's behind the lovely façade of the neurotic, misanthropic Darling.
You're a Big Boy Now is famous as being director Francis Ford Coppola's Master Thesis at UCLA, but it's not a "student film" in any real sense of the term. Coppola had been working in the film industry for years when he made Big Boy, with Roger Corman as well as with major studios. When Big Boy was released, Coppola had at least one "legitimate" film to his credit as a director (Dementia 13) and had written the screenplays for This Property Is Condemned and Is Paris Burning?. Unlike, say, Spike Lee's celebrated NYU thesis film (Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads), You're a Big Boy Now was no mere school project, but a comparatively well-funded studio production with a cast of "names" that earned serious awards consideration at the end of the year, including an Oscar nomination for Page.
You're a Big Boy Now was released about a year before The Graduate. Thanks to the thematic similarities—each has a confused young man grappling with both growing up and "discovering" sex—the two films have been subject to comparison. The Graduate, of course, is the better film, a deserved classic. It juggles funny and serious moments, and offers memorable characters and a witty, incisive script.
While You're a Big Boy Now might not be in the same league as The Graduate, it's pretty good in its own right. Exuberantly silly and frequently clever, You're a Big Boy Now might not be a great movie, but it's an awfully engaging one.
Like the title says, Bernard is a Big Boy—he's not even ready to be considered a Young Man. Goofy and playful, he's an odd duck in an odd world, that world being New York City in the mid-'60s. The social changes of the time are of no consequence to Bernard (or Coppola, at least here); he's part of a counter-culture that's politically benign but emotionally treacherous.
Bernard enjoys word play (making up words to go with initials, or giving people nicknames based on their faces), and his mother sends him locks of her hair to remind him of her. He roller skates at his library job, and when he receives a letter from his crush, joyously roller skates through the streets of New York in a scene that's not nearly as annoying as it sounds. He's an innocent who approaches life and its important aspects—like girls—the way a 14-year-old would; he might as well be a male Little Red Riding Hood, given all the wolves he meets in the woods of New York.
But Bernard's cheerful cluelessness is the thing that powers him. Except for a nice girl who works with him, everyone else in his orbit is either jaded or borderline insane. The world into which Bernard is plunked is such a skewed place that his easily managed weirdness defaults him to normal.
Coppola was just a few older than Bernard when he made You're a Big Boy Now, and the film is filled with a youthful, manic energy. The director, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by David Benedictus, top-loads the film with all sorts of bizarreness; most of it works, though some of it's a bit too calculated and precious (like naming Harris' character "Miss Thing").
Even though the film often comes perilously close to spinning out of control, Coppola directs with a sure hand; it seems clear that this is the film he wanted to make. There's a restraint to the zaniness, and nothing feels haphazard or sloppy. Coppola combines the freewheeling hipness of an AIP comedy with a decidedly European sensibility and creates a film that's very much of its time yet doesn't feel like a relic. While it's no longer exactly fresh, You're a Big Boy Now is inventive and charming enough to have aged far better than most "youth" films of the era.
The film features some cool songs by the Lovin' Spoonful, including "Darlin' Be Home Soon," which is used to score one of the best sequences in the film: a maddeningly awkward encounter between the nervous, innocent Bernard and the predatory Barbara. It's a gorgeous scene, deftly handled by Coppola and a terrific showcase for Hartman and Kastner; it tells us everything we need to know about these two people. It not only perfectly captures Bernard's frustration and confusion, but the universal frustration and confusion that most young men experience at some point on their way to maturation.
Kastner, whose career never really took off the way it should have, is very good as the man-child Bernard, bringing just the right amount of awkwardly boyish vulnerability to the part. Page and Torn are very funny as his parents, as is Harris as his landlady. Karen Black (The Pyx) gives one of her earliest performances as the "nice" girl who's interested in Bernard, and Tony Bill (who won an Oscar for producing The Sting) is funny as Bernard's quirky, more experienced friend.
You're a Big Boy Now also offers one of the unfortunately too-few opportunities to see Elizabeth Hartman in a substantial role. Hartman, whose debut in A Patch of Blue was so promising, made just a handful of films—including The Beguiled—before seeing her career evaporate. Her last significant on-screen role was as Buford Pusser's doomed wife in Walking Tall, and it was really a minor part. She's excellent here as the obsessively self-centered object of Bernard's desire, and Coppola gives her plenty of room to work, allowing her to craft a hilariously compellingly ruthless and sharp-edged character. Hartman, who suffered from depression, committed suicide in 1987.
The disc is from Warner Archive, which means acceptable tech and no supplements—a pity, since I'd imagine there are some interesting behind-the-scenes stories with this film. At least it's out there.
While it's a bit uneven and occasionally a little forced, You're a Big Boy Now is energetic and off-beat enough to make it, at minimum, a minor classic in the youth comedy subgenre. While the Warner Archive release is lacking supplements and truly good tech, it's the only way to see this one, and it certainly merits being seen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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