Men confront aging in a new wave of films
Old codgers in leading roles are not nearly as anomalous as their distaff siblings (see my FJI post “Summer of the Mature Woman Onscreen”). For starters, there are far more bankable senior male stars and, not coincidentally, a geezer’s story—most obviously a biopic of a fascinating historic/artistic/political character—is just more interesting to a broad-based audience than a woman’s narrative, especially if she’s on the cusp of or, worse, already receiving Social Security checks.
Still, it’s not common to see five major releases zeroing in on the lives of older men, including Youth, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel; The Intern, with Robert De Niro; A Walk in the Woods, featuring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte; along with two biopics, Trumbo and Truth, dealing with respectively the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and CBS newscaster Dan Rather (Redford), though in all fairness Rather plays a small role in Truth and the issues facing Trumbo have nothing to do with age.
But aging is undoubtedly the central theme in the three recent fictional features that explore with varying degrees of success—and in a potpourri of genres—what it means for men to be past their prime in the contemporary world. How do they redefine themselves and look to the future when most of their lives have come and gone?
Youth: That Murky Netherworld Between Valentine and Mockery
No film examines life’s final chapter more pointedly than Paolo Sorrentino’s visually lush and stunningly pretentious (and portentous) Youth. The Great Beauty, his Oscar-winning Italian picture, foreshadowed this one.
Set in a luxury Swiss Alps spa overflowing with navel-gazing arty types of all ages, Youth casts its lens on two lifelong friends pushing 80, Fred Ballinger (Caine), a successful composer-conductor who has chucked it all “for personal reasons,” though these are never made fully clear, and filmmaker Mick Boyle (Keitel), who is forging ahead with his final screenplay, suitably dubbed Life’s Last Day (just in case the viewer didn’t get what the film is all about). It’s his tribute to Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), the star who has made his career possible and continues to be his meal ticket. Without her presence in the film, it could not get made. An over-the-hill diva who determines a movie’s fate? That strains credulity.
But that’s a tiny problem in a film that combines improbability and clichés of old age. The two septuagenarians banter endlessly about prostate disorders and short-term memory loss before moving on to their individual and shared torment over the limited time they have left while rehashing failed ambitions and missed opportunities. Meaningful silences abound as they gaze out at endless stretches of bucolic, mountainous landscapes.
Evoking a Chekhovian story with a smidgen of Thomas Mann and Fellini thrown in for good measure, Youth is intended as a testimonial to aging artists, but unwittingly becomes a sendup of itself that incorporates intrusive—albeit cinematically striking—imagery that may be Rick’s or Fred’s stream of consciousness, dream sequences, recollections perceived through the distorting filter of memory, or combinations thereof or something else altogether.
Still, Caine and Keitel’s performances make it worth the effort of sitting through the nonsense. Their slightest shift of expression—from a wry smile to a thoughtful pause—brings to fruition fully realized, layered lives. Fred is amused, thoughtful and pained, while Mick’s impassive face barely conceals his frustration and panic. Their acting is seamless.
In an emblematic scene, Fred and Mick are seated at one end of the spa’s pool—their sagging and creased flesh clearly visible above the water line—staring at a young, scantily clad beauty slowly immersing herself in the water. Without saying a word, their sense of longing and irretrievable loss is palpable.
In another scene, they recall a woman they were drawn to decades earlier. Fred asks Mick if he ever slept with her. It’s a question that’s haunted him, but Mick just can’t remember. He’s not being coy or evasive. The woman and their relationship—if in fact they ever had one—are not relevant anymore and, viewed in that light, it’s one of the more poignant exchanges in this film, underscoring how the passage of time informs memory and perspective.
Theirs is a long-term friendship. But they’ve also had an impact on their colleagues and families—they’ve had plenty of time to do so—and are forced to live with the consequences. Fred suffers paralyzing guilt for abandoning his daughter and especially his wife as he pursued other women and his career, which took precedence over everything else. In an explosive monologue, his daughter (Rachel Weisz) throws that up to him.
Mick’s past is murkier, though thanks to his reputation as a major filmmaker he plays a shaping role in lives of his young acolytes who are happily collaborating on a screenplay for him. The odds are they’ll never see a dime for their efforts. They are as deluded as he, but not as pitiful because time is on their side. Mick needs them more than they need him.
The turning point is Brenda, the allegedly bankable star, informing Mick in the crudest terms that his work has always been garbage and that she is better served in a mediocre TV series that will afford her the money to buy a home in Miami. She says she will not appear in his film. Brenda is an easy target for mockery, but she is harshly realistic, at least as far as her own interests are concerned.
Her assessment of Mick may or may not be fair, though her bare-knuckled honesty is devastating to him. He is futureless and forced to confront his past and the value of his life’s work. The central questions for Mick and Fred and to a lesser extent Brenda is to what degree they have an identity—a life—beyond their art.
Stripped of cinematic excess, Youth could have been a groundbreaking examination of the lives of senior artists. Instead, it just feels long—not unlike the lives of the two heroes.
The Intern: A Comic Nod to Modern Sensibilities in a Middlebrow World
The Intern’s Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is an affable Everyman who has little to do short of attending the funerals of old friends. Playing golf, pinochle and taking tai-chi classes is not cutting it anymore for the 70-year-old widower and retiree. Paraphrasing Freud, he talks about the need for love and work and when he sees an ad for a “senior intern” program at a trendy Brooklyn-based e-retail operation, he decides to give it a shot.
Admittedly, this is a slight film—and mildly diverting at that—yet a cleverly veiled condescending tone towards the “mature” employee is present. Even as writer-director Nancy Meyers gently mocks the political correctness of the “senior intern” conceit, she’s implicitly endorsing it.
The ostensible theme is this: Let’s give hapless old crocks something to do in the real world and they’ll feel good about themselves and turn out to be wonderful friends and mentors to the young (very young) staffers who don’t know nearly as much as they think, certainly not about “life,” as those collecting Medicare benefits. See!
But the subtext is a little darker, implying that oldsters are no longer fit for much. They don’t understand contemporary jargon, dress styles, technology or social media—lots of elbow-nudging comic potential here—and just in case the point hasn’t been made, some of the veterans can barely breathe without assistance.
One geriatric arrives for his interview hooked up to an oxygen canister on wheels that roll along with him as he shuffles from place to place. But audiences need not fret over the plight of the new job applicants. Discrimination and/or exploitation play no role in Meyers’ lighthearted universe. None of these oldsters need or want (heaven forbid) paying jobs anyway.
Ben is financially comfortable, living in a well-appointed renovated brownstone with an extensive color-coordinated walk-in closet. He boasts a daily itinerary that includes shaving, tucking his shirt into his pants (in stark contrast to the young males in the office), and sporting an ironed handkerchief in his jacket’s breast pocket.
He is a charming fossil and fodder for affectionate laughter, especially when facing an alien task, one that’s second nature to the kids—e.g., making a video of himself as part of his job application. But, interestingly, just as audiences feel superior to him, they also secretly agree with him. As seen through his eyes, the very concept of the selfie video becomes a comic absurdity. It’s a double-edged sword and disarming.
Similarly, when the interviewer (a child-boss) asks him where he expects to be in ten years, the laugh works on several levels. Ben and the audience are amused at the well-worn cliché and also at the unspoken assumption that in all likelihood Ben will be dead in ten years, thus making the question even more hilarious. In this complacent, middlebrow universe, a senior would never say, “I expect to be at the top of my game, even more so than I am now.” That would suggest a level of disaffection and rebellion, a refusal to accept his status as the superannuated.
Here’s something else. Ben is the title character and initially it’s his story, but midway through the film he becomes secondary as the focus shifts to his co-star, his boss, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), and her all-too familiar plotline: the young female executive-entrepreneur—running a terrifically successful business and employing dozens of young staffers—who loves her career and also feels overwhelmed and troubled because she’s not spending enough time with her toddler (Jo-Jo Kushner) or her stay-at-home husband (Anders Holm) whom she suspects is philandering. Meyers likes stories about upscale modern women who must make decisions about the demands of their over-fulfilled lives. (Think Baby Boom.)
She also seems to feel that a senior’s story couldn’t maintain audience interest and, reflecting that view, Jules sees Ben as an obligatory intrusion too. But through his persistent good graces—he cheerfully serves as her chauffeur, among other duties—Jules begins to appreciate his chivalrous ways, efficiency, and profound knowledge of office politics and interpersonal relations.
As it happens, they have a great deal in common, not least that he literally worked in the same space—her converted factory where he’s now serving as an intern—for 40 years making phone books (a pre-computer analogue to Jules e-commerce operation?). This way-over-the-top coincidence further cements their bond as Ben morphs into an idealized father figure, protecting her when she drinks to excess, encouraging her to follow her dreams, and comforting her in the face of her disintegrating marriage. He has a heart-to-heart with hubby too, setting him on the right track.
Ben is a paragon of stability and common sense especially compared with the film’s younger men, who are comically moronic, incomprehensible and/or self-serving. He also stacks up pretty well alongside the female characters, all of whom fall short in this comedy.
Jules’ mother is emotionally unavailable and the playground moms resent Jules’ success and are catty to a fault, not that Jules is blameless. She is insensitive—downright indifferent—to her female colleagues and has no women friends at all.
But the most objectionable woman—and she’s more than a little retro—is an abrasive and whiny senior lady (played to comic perfection by Linda Lavin) who has her sights set on Ben, who in turn is happily involved with a sexy masseuse (Rene Russo), looking 15 or more years his junior. (Check out 5 Flights Up, starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman, for a sweet depiction of an age-appropriate, long-lasting relationship.) Its nod to the contemporary notwithstanding, The Intern is a throwback in its cozy reassurance that some things haven’t changed and, as in old-school comedies, problems are solvable and all is well with the world, at least provisionally.
Grandpa may not be on life support or even in a rocker. But he’s still Grandpa and knows what’s what, despite his very real, but fetching, limitations.
A Walk in the Woods: Grumpy Old Men in the Wild
A Walk in the Woods is equally comfy with its prototypical curmudgeons—played by a delightful Nick Nolte and a somewhat comatose Robert Redford—enjoying a bromance in a comic outdoors adventure. Still, the idea of two old fogies tackling nature—in this instance, attempting to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine—as a last-ditch effort to feel alive and arguably combat mortality is new. It’s also entertaining, at moments laugh-out-loud funny. Nonetheless, it took Redford, who serves as a producer, more than ten years to launch the project. Even with big stars onboard, there were reservations from the powers-that-be.
The film is loosely based on travel writer Bill Bryson’s best-selling 1998 memoir of the same title. But perhaps as an accommodation to the stars who are in their 70s, the filmmakers added several decades to the age of the two protagonists, the staid and well-groomed Bryson (Redford) and traveling companion Katz (Nolte), a seriously overweight drunk who can barely take a few steps without getting winded. In the book, Bryson recounts the escapades of men in their mid-40s, which makes a lot more sense (but it’s not remotely as amusing) given the daunting physical challenges they encounter on their hike—from bears to icy blasts to oppressive heat, not to mention the unendurable, crippling weight of their backpacks.
The premise is wonderfully absurd, but thanks to the genial screenplay by Bill Holderman and Rick Kerb (a pseudonym for Michael Arndt) and director Ken Kwapis’ light touch, there is no subtext of contempt. Indeed, viewers root for the two old coots precisely because their quest is devoid of the reality principle. In some ways, these gutsy guys are 21st-century innocents.
An adventurer-traveler-writer, the onscreen Bryson is long since retired and (like Ben in The Intern) spends his days at funerals, making small talk, much of it awkward. He is depressed and determined to have another go at the great outdoors, seeking out traveling companions to no avail until he hears from Katz, an old acquaintance with whom he’d had a falling-out decades earlier. The two men have nothing in common, which becomes further grist for comedy.
Bryson knows success and has enjoyed an upper-middle-class life with a lovely British wife (Emma Thompson), while Katz, a loner, has had a marginalized subsistence existence making a few dollars pushing drugs and being frequently on the lam, attempting to avoid thugs, creditors and/or the law. He has spent time in the slammer and is a classic comic anti-hero with a Falstaffian appetite for food, booze, and women who are as backwoods, massively built and horny as he.
The dimwitted country bumpkin and aging lecher are not original types, but in this film they are handled gently and are more appealing and interesting than the button-downed Bryson, who almost plays the role of straight man.
The Bryson-Katz relationship may be vaudevillian, but the two men are also very human and at moments reveal unexpected compassion as they meet up with a host of sorry eccentrics including an opinionated, nonstop chatterer (Kristen Schaal) who feels free to offer unsolicited advice and make unkind assessments—asserting, for example, that Katz is fat and needs to lose weight. She’s unbearable but when they finally manage to escape her, they feel as guilty as they are relieved. They know she is alone and understand what that’s about.
Age is the great equalizer and at the same time a distinguishing factor. In the end, the daring duo is dependent on the kindness (and strength) of young men who are saviors. And that’s okay too, given this film’s matter-of-fact—and even elegiac—treatment of old age that provides neither bromides nor life lessons. Not surprisingly, Bryson and Katz don’t make it to the end of the trail, though they’ve persevered for a long time.
But this is no Rocky. The audience doesn’t celebrate them because they’re still standing, just that they had a good time. And so did this viewer.
Among all these films and despite appearances A Walk in the Woods may be offering the most profound view of two old men.