Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 11, 2012)
With 1971’s Harold and Maude, we work from a premise that remains unusual even 40 years later. We find the romantic couple of 20-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) and nearly 80-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). That wasn’t exactly a recipe for box office gold, so the flick bombed in its initial release, but it developed a strong cult audience over the years.
Why has it endured as a “cult classic” across the last four decades? I have no idea, as I actively loathed this condescending and self-righteous film. Maude clearly was the product of its time, as everything about it signifies the worst aspects of the counterculture prevalent in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It's all about letting your freak flag fly, and don't let the Man tell you what to do. Right on, brothers!
Or some such nonsense. I dislike propaganda of any sort, and I find this sort of "do what you wanna do, dude!" trash just as offensive as any kind of totalitarian screed. It's not the content itself that so bothers me - hey, I don't like war or silly rules either - but I can't stand to have viewpoints shoved upon me in an arrogant and smug manner, which is how the vast majority of Maude proceeds.
Our "hero" Harold has been held down by the Man. Or rather, the Woman, in the person of his mother (Vivian Pickles). In their wealthy family, she constantly shoves her ideas of how Harold should live his life down his throat, and his only manner of rebellion stems from his faked suicide attempts. Mom has Harold talk to a psychiatrist, a priest and an Army officer, but none connect with the youngster and he continues along his miserable existence.
As demonstrated through his phony suicides, Harold is obsessed with death; he also visits the funerals of strangers. At one of these he meets wrinkly old Maude and the two quickly become friends. Despite her advanced age, Maude retains a joy for life, and she teaches Harold how to really thrive through her irrepressible viewpoint.
Please excuse me while I vomit. The entire film is a thinly-disguised hippie manifesto in which all things organized and conventional are criticized while anarchy and selfishness are praised. Maude has the habit of stealing cars for her own use, and we're clearly supposed to think this is cute and acceptable. She also drives like a maniac and does exactly what she wants to do whenever she wants to do it.
Some aspects of the Sixties counterculture were quite positive, but Maude bases its theme around the most self-absorbed and unproductive parts of the era. There's a fine line between indulgent fantasy and realistic pragmatism, and this movie wants us to believe the latter is absolutely unnecessary; hey, as long as you're happy, it doesn't matter how badly you've inconvenienced or harmed others.
That's the attitude I took from this film. It's one thing to take a stand against ridiculous societal conventions - ala Dr. Strangelove or M*A*S*H - but it's quite another to go to this egocentric extreme. For example, take the scene in which Maude decides that a tree planted in the city needs to be in the country to thrive. She a) steals another car, b) steals the tree, and c) drives recklessly to replant the tree.
Due to her multiple traffic violations, a cop pulls her over and finds that she possesses no driver's license; she freely admits she stole the car and she doesn't care. Throughout this interaction, the officer is presented as an oppressive moron who is to be ignored and disdained, while Maude – who breaks a multitude of (logical) laws at every step – is to be adored and praised.
I can't get over the idiocy of this viewpoint. The cop tries to enforce laws that exist for the protection of others - Maude is clearly a danger to society with her careless driving - and does so in a reasonable manner; this isn't some authority-obsessed fascist. Nonetheless, we're supposed to empathize with wacky old Maude and her anti-establishment ways.
Ugh! I'm all for projects that mock the stupidity of many rules and regulations – ala the work of Terry Gilliam - but I always thought laws against reckless and dangerous driving and against thievery were a good thing.
Apparently not, if the theme of Maude is to be accepted. The film is neither clever nor witty in its attack on authority, and it seems just as pompous as the figures it so despises. All those in positions of power are treated as idiots or fascists or both.
The acting is tolerable at best. Cort strongly resembles one of those God-awful paintings of the kids with the giant eyes, and he makes for an unpleasant screen presence. That's not just because he's a creepy-looking kid; it occurs also due to his generally irritating and self-righteous demeanor. He tends to overplay his scenes and makes for a wholly unlikable, unsympathetic character.
I never liked Gordon, and her usual flaws are on display here. She's the wacky old lady who's all spunk and spirit, and she's quite annoying. The only moment in which she displays any real talent is one where she shows some emotion about the past. Other than that, she's all wisecracks, craziness and smug platitudes.
The movie can’t even resist its preaching when it comes to the credits. A then-unknown Tom Skeritt played the motorcycle cop, but you won’t find his name in the end credits. Instead, the role of “Motorcycle Officer” is attributed to “M. Borman”, a not-so-subtle link to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s right-hand man. Clever, huh?
Add to this appalling concoction some atrocious songs by lightweight singer/songwriter Cat Stevens and you have a genuinely terrible film. Harold and Maude wants to be The Graduate: a poignant and honest "coming of age" story about a young man who doesn't fit in with the ways society tries to buttonhole him.
The Graduate makes its points in subtle and understated ways that reflect the reality of the situation without becoming excessive, and many of us could identify with Benjamin. Few will see much of themselves in a selfish jerk like Harold, however, and I doubt many will want to identify with the cruel, smug kid.
And why is a movie about tolerance so incredibly intolerant? It says “be who you want to be – as long as who you want to be fits the tiny boxes of which we approve”. Maude is one of the most self-centered, oppressive characters in film history. She cares not a whit what anyone actually wants; you have to fit her idea of life or else you’re wrong. She speaks in nothing but cheap slogans best suited to inspirational posters with kittens and sunsets and lacks even the slightest hint of wisdom.
I disliked Harold and Maude while I watched it, but my anger only escalated as I thought about it afterward. This is nothing more than heavy-handed and arrogant piece of propaganda that offers nothing of value.