For all of the messy tragedy inherent in a midlife crisis, for men anyway, there used to be something fun about them. The new, hot car. The new, hot girlfriend two decades younger. The acted-upon impulse to throw it all carelessly to the wind.
The tropes were so familiar, the arc so predictable (both car and girl would run out of mileage fast), that middle-aged men dealing with the existential blues became natural comedy fodder for movies and TV shows over the years.
Never comfortable with the über masculinity of their fathers, or with aging, Baby Boomers are now being forced to confront both, leading them into a murky territory that inspires far more discomfort than bravado.
The archetype was created in 10, Blake Edwards’ 1979 comedy in which Dudley Moore, after turning 42, completely loses his mind while chasing (actually chasing) after Bo Derek’s character, a young, famously corn-rowed newlywed. Then there was Steve Martin and his bouncy (literally, she bounced), young fling SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker) in L.A. Story. The same year, 1991, saw Billy Crystal et al as depressed urbanites turned free-living cattle drivers in City Slickers. And back when life was considered half over at 30, Marilyn Monroe was the tempting babe next door in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. Even shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons obligingly devoted half an hour to dealing with midlife angst in a humorous way—in the latter, Homer, upon realizing that “I’m already 38.1!” and have “wasted half my life!,” locks himself in the basement and invents the Lazy Man Reclining Toilet Chair.
Dudley Moore in 10
But suddenly, the midlife crisis business has become unrelentingly sad, demanding not caricature and jokes, but heavy-handed earnestness and underlying morality lessons that hold up all the old stereotypes of the genre for mockery.
As so often is the case, the Baby Boomers (i.e., those now facing middle age) are to blame. Never comfortable with the über masculinity of their fathers, or with aging, they are now being forced to confront both, leading them into a murky territory that inspires far more discomfort than bravado. And, needless to say, far fewer laughs.
On hand to chart their journey through this murky vortex are our popular entertainments, which revel in their characters’ mopey insecurity. The most shameless offender is Men of a Certain Age, the TNT show that stars Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher as three men approaching 50 in a terrified state. Romano, grayer and shabbier (though actually far more appealing) than his sitcom persona, plays Joe Terrelli, a divorcé with two teenage kids who owns a party supply store. No, on paper, Joe is not in any way lady bait. Yet as played by a fumbling, understated Romano, Joe ultimately comes across as charming. Indeed, single moms all across his Los Angeles suburb all but shed their tennis whites when he walks by and mutters a hello. Some even send some of those aforementioned texts. And what does Joe do? Very little. The few sexcapades are disasters, and he fails to return the texts. Instead, he spends most of his time worrying about his son’s anxiety issues and his daughter’s burgeoning sex life. He can’t even enjoy the things he supposedly likes to do, like golf. As for his one vice—gambling—he’s gotten it under control.
Men of a Certain Age, whose credits roll to the balmy sound of ‘60’s surf tunes, is the Boomers’ rebuke to the Masters of the Universe 1980s. September 11, the Great Recession, and all the other things that have made life seem so fragile and insecure over the past decade, have all worked on Joe and his buddies. On the show, running a car dealership is presented as a noble profession. And Joe’s neurotic clinging to what shards of his family are left is seen as far preferable to his flaky friend Terry’s (Bakula) skirt-chasing habit.
Technically, other TV characters are having a much more indulgent time with their midlife malaise. But only technically. Even when old stereotypes are validated, they come across as overworked and unfun. In Showtime’s Californication, although David Duchovny’s character, a fornication addict, is having non-stop sex, it’s driven by self-loathing and seems as pleasurable as fixing drain pipes. This also applies to Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a high-school teacher turned male prostitute, in HBO’s Hung. And in AMC’s Breaking Bad, Walter H. White (Bryan Cranston), who actually has a reason to be in a bad mood (he has cancer), is driven to supplement his gig as a teacher with a more lucrative-slash-crazy career: cooking meth. Not that there’s any real pay-off; he’s a mostly miserable wretch, wracked by guilt that his wife has no idea (at least until season three) what he’s up to.
(Interestingly, one of the only TV shows that glorifies the traditional means of handling a midlife crisis—booze and infidelity—is Mad Men, a show set in a decidedly pre-9/11 world.)
The big screen, too, is awash in lackluster breakdowns. In Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s latest ode to haute ennui, a 40-ish movie star (Stephen Dorff) and father living by himself in a posh hotel, stares absently as a pair of pole dancers complete their routine three feet from his bed. It’s as though he’s watching goldfish swim. And in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the most recent film by Woody Allen (he who showed the charming delights of age-inappropriate love in Manhattan), Anthony Hopkins plays an aging businessman who leaves his wife and instantly remarries a leggy prostitute, in whose company he never stops looking uncomfortable.
Thank God, therefore (at least for the sake of viewers), for middle-aged women, the alphas of our day, who in a blatant role reversal are the ones having affairs and exploring the world beyond their navel. Joe’s ex-wife on Men of a Certain Age was the one who cheated on him, and insists on being the plaintiff in their divorce, further bruising his ego and leaving him as a hapless defendant. Liz Gilbert, the newly divorced and spiritually flailing narrator/author of Eat, Pray, Love, jets off to Rome, does yoga in India, and takes up with an exotic lover in Indonesia. The ladies in Sex and the City 2 deal with the marriage and baby blahs by pampering themselves in Abu Dhabi.
New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley has argued that it’s exactly this female empowerment, nourished in the 1980s and '90s, that is responsible for today’s self-searching and careful, as opposed to carefree, men. In short, she says that Carrie Bradshaw is the reason Tony Soprano started going to therapy. Indeed, the new millennium does seem to be a turning point of sorts. It’s interesting to note that the same year the Sopranos went on the air, 1999, and ingeniously blended traditional paradigms with New-Agey sentimentality, Kevin Spacey made what was perhaps the final battle cry of old school, middle-aged machismo, in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. When asked by his wife whose flashy car is parked in the driveway, Lester Burnham, i.e., Spacey, says: “Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted, and now I have it. I rule!”
The trophy car recently made an appearance on Men of a Certain Age (reflective of these leaner times, it was a new Chevrolet), taken for a spin by yet another man whose wife had ditched him. But in the end, the guy (a friend of Bakula’s character) couldn’t go through with buying it. Instead, he shored up his wounded pride by stealing a plastic Humpty Dumpty from his ex’s front yard. A more feeble form of validation than “I rule!,” but these days, for a certain man, of a certain age, that seems to be enough.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.