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Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART ONE

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by Jed Mayer
April 17, 2014 1:37 PM
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Like most movie fans, I’m a compulsive list maker.  The habit began in my teens with naïve exuberance (best monster movies, best science fiction), grew more pretentious as I began taking film classes in college (best Nouvelle Vague films, best German Expressionist works), finally reaching monomaniacal proportions in grad school (50 best non-American Westerns, 25 best Japanese gangster films).  Though I probably should have grown out of the habit, I remain a list-oriented viewer.  Recently I came across a list of teen films by a writer I’d always respected, but was so annoyed by his failure to include what I take to be the greatest teen film of all time, Over the Edge, that I started to prepare a rebuttal.

But as I sat down to write about teen films I thought: what’s wrong with me? I just turned forty-eight and I’m getting worked up about what the greatest teen film should be?  Shouldn’t I be more interested in films about people a little closer to my age?  Then I started looking to see what kinds of lists about middle-age films critics have compiled and found none, or rather found several films about the Middle Ages--but not about middle age.  In speculating on why this might be, one might be inclined to trot out familiar arguments about our culture’s obsession with youth and the commercial tendency to market to younger demographics.  But plenty of critics are older, and films about middle age often receive positive, intelligent reviews.  So why no lists?  It’s easy to find lists of best women’s films, best teen films, best African-American films, but the middle seems to be missing.

Perhaps it’s because few people want to acknowledge that they are middle-aged.  If you’re among the small number of readers who didn’t automatically pass over this piece on the basis of its title, you belong to that rare group of people who acknowledge their age and are interested in seeing films that do the same.  It’s not a pleasant admission, but films can help.  I’ve always turned to film to give me perspective on my life, its difficulties as well as its joys.  So over the next couple of weeks I’m going to share my list of some films that have given me perspective on the middle stage of life, even when I didn’t realize that that’s what these films were doing.

30. Lost in America (1985)

“It’ll be like Easy Rider, but in a motor home”: the perfect metaphor for middle age.  In what is perhaps the funniest film ever about a mid-life crisis, Albert Brooks gently mocks the desire to reinvent yourself while still retaining the poignancy of discovering you can’t be young again.  Fed up with a dead-end executive job, David Howard and his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) decide to drop out of society. As they head out on the highway in their Winnebago, the gap between dream and reality is made clear when David waves admiringly at a Harley driver who flips him off.  After Linda loses their nest egg gambling in a Las Vegas casino, they are forced to take pathetic minimum wage jobs.  Finally they realize David has to go back to his boss “and eat shit,” and they resume their former lives.  A little cynical, a little sad, Brooks’ film nevertheless makes high comedy out of compromise, in a refreshing honest rebuttal to mendacious claims that life begins at forty.

29. You Can Count on Me (2000)

In what remains one of Laura Linney’s finest performances, she plays Sammy, a single mother and lending officer at a small town bank whose dull life is both enlivened and threatened by a visit from her errant brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo).  Both characters share an abiding sadness, perhaps because of the early death of their parents in a car-crash, but Terry is more free-spirited, if compulsively irresponsible, and at first he seems to represent everything Sammy gave up for a secure, predictable life.  But as he begins to meddle in her son’s life, and as a sordid affair with her boss (played with impeccable comic presence by Matthew Broderick) begins to spiral out of control, her old humdrum life begins to seem almost attractive.  Kenneth Lonergan’s funny, wistful take on the peculiar nature of sibling relationships makes what would otherwise seem an inconsequential visit into a poignant meditation on the roads not taken.

28. Portrait of Jennie (1948)

This criminally overlooked David O. Selznick production stars Joseph Cotten as a struggling artist whose creative wellspring seems to have run prematurely dry.  But then he encounters a wise and enigmatic little girl in the park and in painting a portrait of her from memory he rediscovers his art.  The girl reappears at intervals, growing rapidly older with each encounter, and his artistic powers grow along with her.  I can’t help associating this film with the final, haunting scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, where an aimless Marcello Mastroianni sees a mysterious, wistfully smiling little girl waving at him across the water: symbol of his lost innocence? repressed and undeveloped feminine self? elusive paramour?  Portrait of Jennie, though it adopts the conventions of the ghost story, remains similarly ambiguous on what this muse figure represents for the artist, and the film passes by like a sad and wistful middle-aged daydream.

27. Home for the Holidays (1995)

Though this Jodie Foster comedy could be written off as trite holiday fare, Holly Hunter’s standout performance as a single mother at the crossroads brings a quiet gravitas to this sometimes slapstick comedy.  While Robert Downey, Jr., threatens to steal the show as her gay, rebellious brother, it is their eccentric parents, played expertly by Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning, and their complicated relationship with their children, that give the film its surprising emotional depth.  Steve Guttenberg and Cynthia Stevenson play the children who struggle to make what they perceive as a normal life as a defense against the rest of the family, but succeed only in making themselves miserable.  Everyone in this film experiences some kind of crisis, appropriately brought to the surface over the tensions of Thanksgiving, but ends with a poignant memory of Holly Hunter’s character as a girl, sitting on her father’s shoulders as a 747 takes off in front of them: an apt image of youthful dreams that dazzle even as they fly away, leaving the sad and funny oddities of our grown-up selves.

26. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

As an aging academic, this one hits a little too close to home for me, but Edward Albee’s genius was in creating stories that pull the viewer through discomfort to redemption.  Mike Nichols’ disarming point-of-view cinematography immerses us into the awkward encounter between alcoholic professors and the seemingly naïve young couple who are their late-night guests.  As the film progresses, this immersion moves subtly from repulsion to sympathy, and we end with a surprisingly touching scene of Liz and Burt on the moonlit lawn, exchanging words of long-rehearsed but no less real affection.  Marriage, like tenure, can have a numbing effect over time, but it is also a source of enduring comfort: even passion.  The aging couple at the center of this film remain intense despite their repetitive lives, and if the price of that intensity is slow self-destruction, the story suggests, it might just be worth it.

25. Waiting for Guffman (1996)

This remains the funniest of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, and also the most touching, largely because it captures people desperate for something to believe in.  When washed-up dramatist Corky St. Clair gets the chance to present his absurd musical production to a New York critic, he draws his hilariously amateurish small town ensemble into his fantasy.  The irony is that the play, Red, White, and Blaine, is meant to honor the small Missouri town’s sesquicentennial, yet all of the characters embrace the opportunity of getting out and making it big.  The hilarity ends in disappointment, somehow made more sad by the epilogue, which shows the characters having abandoned their town for questionable, even demeaning, gigs in the business we call show.  Like many, I have watched this film so many times that I’ve memorized nearly every line, probably because I am drawn nostalgically to my small-town past, as much as I like to mock it.

24. Thief (1981)

The plot of this groundbreaking and stylish thriller could be read as a metaphor for middle age: hardworking safecracker Frank (James Caan), falls in love with a cashier, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and decides to try and get out of the crime racket and live free.  Juxtaposing surprisingly labor-intensive, grueling break-ins with intimate conversations, Mann’s film is as much about the burdens of clocking in as of the dream of getting away.  In one of the most compelling first date scenes ever filmed, Frank and Jessie, shot against a plate glass window giving onto a dark highway, pledge themselves to one another, essentially because neither of them are getting any younger, and life’s too short to let something they know is real slip by.  When Luciferian crime-lord Leo enters the picture, offering Frank an opportunity for one last heist, the deal turns into a kind of indentured servitude, and we root for the protagonist’s liberation as we might for any working stiff aging his life away in a soul-crushing job. 

23. Thelma and Louise (1991)

Why is it that so many of the best films about middle age end in death and destruction?  Ridley Scott’s classic road movie suggests that it’s because it might be better to die than to fade away, but does so with a bold twist on the convention by focusing on women.  Thelma and Louise aren’t breaking away from dead-end jobs and marriages so much as they are from men in general, and their final, liberatory drive takes on added political power as an affront to the patriarchy that drove them to it.  Susan Sarandon plays Louise as one of those aging diner waitresses who seem fonts of wisdom and calm, only to reveal the anger and bitterness underneath, a result of men’s abuse.  Her fiery reinvention of herself draws in the younger Thelma (Geena Davis), as the older woman becomes a kind of sharp-tongued prophet of women’s liberation, at whatever cost. 

22. The Wrestler (2008)

Much of the pathos of this landmark Darren Aronofsky film derives from the tragic symmetry between the lives of the leading actor, Mickey Rourke, and his character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson.  The scars and blemishes on that ravaged face are real, and tell a story every bit as harrowing as the downward spiral of the washed-up wrestler of the film.  Rourke’s brave self-exposure is ably matched by Marisa Tomei’s performance as an aging stripper, and the two bond out of a mutual recognition of living past their prime.  They share an affection for eighties music, and the era of good times and younger days it encapsulates.  But living in the past becomes self-destructive when “the Ram” tries to rekindle his former glory, in a grotesque parody of the showbiz comeback, that is as much as a commentary on the fickleness of fame as it is on the inevitability of age.

21. The Station Agent (2003)

On a happier note, this gentle comedy courts tragedy, only to allow its three misfit characters to find friendship and a renewed sense of purpose.  Although Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is at the film’s center, as an aging dwarf cut loose from his beloved job, Patricia Clarkson brings an awesome presence to her alternately ditzy and tragic character, Olivia, a middle-aged artist whose marriage is breaking up following the death of their son.  Bobby Canavale threatens to steal almost every scene he’s in with his pitch-perfect rendering of Joe, an attention-deficit-afflicted food truck entrepreneur, but ultimately he serves as the intermediary between his disaffected older friends, just as Finbar’s obsession with trains serves to reignite the other characters’ dwindling love of life.  Alienation and eccentricity become somehow heroic, even livable qualities in this enduring independent film.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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