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Measure of a Man **

by Ruben Rosario

An air of déja vu pervades this unremarkable coming-of-age tale, set in the mid-1970s, that fails to make viewers feel much empathy for its pudgy protagonist and wastes a sturdy cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Luke Wilson and Judy Greer.  

Is it worth $10? No  

From the opening moments of “Measure of a Man,” it's clear this is yet another of those movies about the summer that changed everything. You've heard this story before, and you've likely seen the generic titles of many, many others like it while scanning through the digital display at the box office of your local multiplex on one of those nights when you're not sure what you want to see, so why not take a chance on the small, obscure dramedy with a couple of familiar names?

This is not one of those unheralded gems, I'm sorry to report, even though, at least on paper, it had all the makings of just such a sleeper. Take, for instance, the main character. Bobby Marks (“The Maze Runner's” Blake Cooper) has a mop of curly hair, a disdain for arrogant “cool” kids, a penchant for candy bars and an aversion to those warm months when class is not in session. How do we know this? “I hate summer vacation,” intones an adult Bobby in voiceover narration, a device that the film's director, British TV vet Jim Loach, uses to state the obvious. Again and again. Think of the TV show “The Wonder Years,” then take away most of the charm.

Despite the distracting running commentary, Bobby remains a relatively fresh character. Problem is, he happens to be stuck in an all-too-familiar journey that traces how the overweight, insecure teen learns to get over his low self-esteem during his time spent in his family's summer house alongside his father Marty (Luke Wilson), his mother Lenore (Judy Greer) and his older sister Michelle (Liana Liberato).

In reshaping sports writer Robert Lipsyte's semi-autobiographical 1977 novel, the much better titled “One Fat Summer,” for the screen, Loach and screenwriter David Scearce have changed the year it's set in from 1950 to 1976 while retaining the New York state locale. One would think the shift in time period would give the creative team a chance to inject the country's bicentennial and the social upheaval of the time, but those trappings amount to little more than background noise.

Scearce attempts to breathe life into an entire gallery of supporting characters, including Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell), the platonic girl next door Bobby has been crushing on, and Pete (Luke Benward, who resembles a younger Colin Farrell), the cocky carnival worker who tries to make a move on Michelle, much to her brother's chagrin. But despite a few nuanced moments from Greer and Liberato, the characters remain frsutratingly one-dimensional. That goes double for Wilson; his character's absence for whole chunks of the movie, lazily justified for the most clichéd of reasons, prevents him from making an impression here.

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Before leaving for a few weeks, Joanie, who is pretty but has issues about her large beaky nose, convinces Bobby to apply for a grueling gardening job at a large home owned by Dr. Kahn, ably portrayed by Donald Sutherland, even if the actor is saddled with a strange, hard-to-place accent. Loach devotes considerable screen time to the initially adversarial relationship between employer and bumbling new hire, letting Sutherland's stern glares and tough-love bromides do the heavy lifting. But like just about everything in “Measure of a Man,” he cannot overcome the shopworn, by-the-numbers nature of his character.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is how the movie, which never really allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the mid-1970s, handles the bullying Bobby undergoes over the course of this eventful summer. To be fair, there's more to Willie Rumson (Beau Knapp), the teen's main tormentor, than your basic stock bully, but the film is simply not strong enough to warrant sitting through the unpleasantness of his escalating taunts. There are inklings of an exploration of Vietnam War-related PTSD, but the film's more serious aspects are, for the most part, clumsily introduced and integrated into the narrative, flattening the potentially intriguing aggressor into a stepping stone in Bobby's quest for confidence.

In addition to the intrusive voiceover narration crutch, Loach engages in the kind of soundtrack abuse that makes Robert Zemeckis' use of popular tunes in “Forrest Gump” feel subtle by comparison. It just drives home my big beef with “Measure of a Man,” which is that the film is unable to make its voyage of self-discovery feel novel or particularly engaging. It's not unlike performing a summer chore: a perfunctory task that has you thinking about what you're going to do when you clock out, It fails to make us care how this boy becomes a man.

To add insult to injury, the movie ends in a freeze frame that deprives viewers from what could have been a respectable payoff. It's last nail in the coffin for this affectionate yet curiously uninvolving wallow in nostalgia. It aims for touching and settles for insipid.

All photos courtesy of Great Point Media.

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