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06.30.11

Movies’ Biggest Midlife Meltdowns

'Larry Crowne,' which arrives in theaters Friday, stars Tom Hanks as a middle-aged schlub who is fired from his job and decides to enroll in community college. Many middle-aged film characters have suffered far worse meltdowns, however. From Michael Douglas’s Uzi-fied fast-food breakfast to Warren Beatty’s rapping-politician transformation, Marlow Stern brings you some of the movies’ biggest midlife crises.

William D-Fens  Foster, Falling Down

We’ve all had days where we fantasize about going postal, especially if you live in a big, rude city. Tea Party poster child William Foster, played by midlife crisis expert Michael Douglas (see: The Game, Wonder Boys) is recently divorced, and his wife (Barbara Hershey) has a restraining order against him that prevents Foster from seeing his young daughter, Adele. Furthermore, he was laid off a month ago after years of dedicated service as a defense engineer. All Foster wishes to do is attend Adele’s birthday party, but that’s when the problems start. The air conditioning in his car malfunctions on an extremely hot L.A. day, and a fly won’t leave him alone. So, Foster abandons his car—license plate D-FENS—on the highway and sets out on foot. He first stops at a convenience store to get change for a phone call, but the owner forces him to buy something first. They get into an argument, and Foster eventually wrestles a bat from the owner, and destroys his store. Then, he runs into a few gang members who force him to fork over his briefcase. He refuses, and eventually acquires their cache of weapons after they crash their car following a drive-by shooting attempt. Then, he enters a Whammy Burger and attempts to order breakfast, but is refused for being a few minutes late. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with Foster.

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Lester Burnham, American Beauty

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning performance) is a middle-aged suburban dad who hates his job as a magazine writer, his materialistic, blindly ambitious real estate broker of a wife (Annette Bening), and his teenage daughter thinks he’s the biggest loser on the planet. After he’s told he’ll be laid off, Lester proceeds to blackmail his boss for $60,000 and quits his job, takes up employment at a fast food drive-through, purchases his dream car, takes up marijuana—which he purchases from his teenaged next-door neighbor—and begins having sexual fantasies about his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), covered in rose petals. When Lester discovers that Angela would be more into him if he were in better shape, he starts pumping iron in his garage. His wife also starts banging her real-estate rival, a douchebag named Buddy Kane—who not-so-subtly refers to himself as—The King  in bed—but the affair doesn’t seem to faze Lester, who is in an apparent malaise-induced trance. Just don’t interrupt him.

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The Narrator, Fight Club

Edward Norton plays an unnamed automobile -company employee suffering from insomnia who visits support groups (e.g. for testicular cancer) where he masquerades as a victim, thus granting him the emotional release needed to sleep. The man lives a very conformist lifestyle—fashioning his apartment like an IKEA catalog, obeying his tyrannical boss, etc. He soon befriends Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an anti-consumerist soap salesman who requests that the narrator punch him as an act of emotional release. It works, and they soon form a fight club,  where disgruntled thirtysomethings lash out against one another in order to achieve catharsis. Tyler soon forms an anarchic, anti-materialist group called Project Mayhem, a Weather Underground-type outfit that plants bombs in corporate buildings. However, we soon discover that the man suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and he and Tyler occupy the same body—or in other words, he’s been beating the crap out of himself the entire time. Yikes.

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Isaac Davis, Manhattan

Arguably every film in Woody Allen’s celebrated canon features some matter of midlife crisis, but the biggest one—and most eerily prescient—is seen in the 1979 film Manhattan. Isaac Davis (Allen) is a twice-divorced writer who ditches his job at TV writing to pen a book about his love for New York City. His ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is penning a tell-all book about their failed marriage, and has since come out as a lesbian. Isaac is dating a 17-year-old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), but refuses to take their relationship seriously, despite their solid chemistry, and tries to persuade her to move to London and pursue her acting career. Isaac soon dumps Tracy in favor of Mary (Diane Keaton), his best friend’s ex-mistress, but things don’t exactly work out with her either, sending him right back to Tracy in the film’s beautiful finale.

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Sen. Jay Bullington Bulworth, Bulworth

Don’t get any ideas, Newt. Sen. Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) was once a leftist Democrat who has since caved and has become a centrist who accepts bribes from special interest groups. He’s losing in his reelection bid to a passionate newcomer, and he and his wife have been cheating on each other for years. Losing all faith in himself, he takes out a $10 million life insurance policy on himself, listing his daughter as beneficiary, and hires an assassin to kill him in two days. Then, he starts showing up to campaign events drunk and speaking his mind, espousing leftist, radical politics. After a night out at an urban club smoking marijuana, he then begins dressing as if he’s from the ghetto,  and rapping on C-SPAN. He also strikes up a romantic relationship with a girl from the streets (Halle Berry), recruiting her to join his campaign, which has been reenergized by his wild antics.

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Richard Sherman, The Seven Year Itch

Though it will be forever known for Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway-grate  scene, Billy Wilder’s film is also one of the first cinematic depictions of the male midlife crisis. Middle-aged family man Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) sends his wife and son to Maine to escape the blistering New York City summer heat. Just as his family heads off, he meets The Girl (Marilyn Monroe), a beautiful model who is coincidentally renting the apartment upstairs while she’s in town shooting a TV commercial. He then peruses a book by a psychiatrist that posits that many men have affairs in their seventh year of marriage—the seven year itch —and begins experiencing fantasies about The Girl. As Richard gets closer to her, the fantasies soon take the form of manifestations of his guilt, and begin to overtake his reality, with The Girl bad-mouthing Richard to all the citizens of New York City—in one dream sequence calling him The Creature from the Black Lagoon—turning him into an absolute head case.

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Bob Harris, Lost in Translation

Like Woody before him, Bill Murray is a midlife crisis expert, having experienced middle-age meltdowns in: Rushmore, Scrooged, Broken Flowers, Groundhog Day, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. His performance in Sofia Coppola’s  Lost in Translation, however, takes the cake. Murray plays Bob Harris, an over-the-hill movie star who’s in Tokyo to shoot a TV commercial for Suntory whiskey, which will pay him a cool $2 million. With virtually no grasp of the language or culture, Bob is completely lost in Tokyo. He can’t even seem to get the exercise machines in his hotel to work, and a rendezvous with a prostitute ends with her writhing on the ground screaming his name—by herself. He eventually hooks up with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a twentysomething recent Yale grad who is equally lost wandering around this alien city while her photographer-boyfriend is off working. The two explore the city together, and develop a bit of a May-December romance, with Bob at one point going so far as donning a military camo T-shirt to fit in with Charlotte’s younger crew.

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Howard Beale, Network

In Sidney Lumet’s 1976 classic, Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for his performance) is the longtime anchor of UBS Evening News, who learns that he’ll soon be fired due to poor ratings. After Beale threatens to commit suicide on the next week’s broadcast, he’s fired, but allowed by the division president to deliver a dignified farewell.  He proceeds to rant about how the world is crazy, and:  “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  The spirited diatribe actually causes Beale’s ratings to skyrocket, so the network’s programming department gives him his own program, The Howard Beale Show, which it bills  “the mad prophet of the airwaves.”  The network also signs up a band of terrorists, the Ecumenical Liberation Army,  for a docudrama series in the fall. However, Beale is eventually persuaded by an executive to abandon his populist messages and deliver long-winded, depressing, existentialist speeches, which sees his ratings plummet once more. What follows is, as it were, ratings gold.

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Guido Anselmi, 8 1/2

One of the finest films in Italian surrealist filmmaker Federico FellinI’s dazzling oeuvre, this 1963 classic centers on Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a middle-aged movie director battling a crippling case of director’s block.  He’s just come off a huge hit, but production has stalled on his latest film project—part sci-fi film, part autobiography—because he’s lost his inspiration. Guido can’t back out of the movie and, to make matters worse, virtually everyone connected to him is bothering the director over one thing or another—his coworkers, his producer, his mistress, his wife, and his friends. In order to escape the constant, agonizing pressure, Guido retreats deep into his thoughts, and soon, as his flashbacks and fantasies commingle with reality, he finds himself inching closer to a colossal truth.

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Patrick Bateman, American Psycho

In this 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ acclaimed novel of the same name, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a wealthy,  1980s-era Wall Street businessman who is looked down upon by his colleagues, and is envious of his associate, Paul Allen, an attractive, successful trader. Patrick isn’t connected enough to get a restaurant reservation at Dorsia, and, despite their impeccable design, his business cards don’t stack up to Allen’s. Eventually, he snaps and goes on a murderous rampage killing several women, butchering Allen with an ax to the tune of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square” and even attempts to insert a cat in an ATM machine. Following a menage a trois with two hookers, he tortures the women, and after his secretary narrowly avoids a grisly death by nail gun, he chases another prostitute down his apartment hallway, naked, wielding a chainsaw. Quite an imagination.

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