It is sobering to consider the sheer quantity of misery inflicted on American families each year by middle aged men in the clutches of a midlife crisis. Like Kevin Spacey's character in the currently playing "American Beauty," far too many men at that tender stage of life are willing to risk undermining the stability of their family to chase after a young skirt in a vain effort to recapture their lost youth. All too often, this folly gives rise to a sordid episode with a regrettable ending. It is, in other words, a prime subject for dramatic treatment, as we saw in last week's column.
On the other hand, there are few dramatic premises that cannot also serve as fodder for comedy. The midlife crisis is certainly no exception. If you'd like to see how filmmakers have extracted comedy from this potentially grim subject, look for these titles on home video.
"10" (1979). The runaway success of this sleeper cemented a place in late 20th Century culture for both Bo Derek and Ravel's "Bolero." Dudley Moore, in one of his best film performances, plays a wealthy and successful songwriter who nevertheless is haunted by the feeling that life is passing him by. In particular, it seems to him that every other male his age spends countless hours cavorting with nubile young women while he remains stuck in an outdated pattern of serial monogamy. When he sees an impossibly beautiful young bride (Derek) on her way to her wedding, something inside him snaps. On a wild impulse, he tracks the newleyweds to their honeymoon location in a quixotic effort to meet the object of his obsession. This was actually Moore's second midlife crisis film. The first, "30 is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia" (1968), is also available on home video.
"Middle Age Crazy" (1980). The title of this one says it all. Bruce Dern has spent most of his film career playing dangerously demented characters on the ragged edge of sanity. He does it well, which is why he is asked to do it so often, but when he occasionally has been given the opportunity to play a lighter role the results have been no less exemplary. Here he combines the best of both worlds, portraying a crazed character in a comic context. Completely unnerved by the prospect of turning 40, Dern's character buys himself a sporty car and takes off for a wild fling with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
"Blame It On Rio" (1984). When Matthew Hollis (Michael Caine) and Victor Lyons (Joseph Bologna) take their teenage daughters to Rio for a month, each is on his own. Victor is in the midst of a divorce and Matthew's wife, unhappy with their marriage, has gone off on a trip without him. In this vulnerable condition, Matthew makes an unwise decision when Victor's sexy daughter comes on to him, leaving him wracked with an array of guilt feelings ranging from betrayal of a friend to incest by proxy.
"A New Life" (1988). Alan Alda wrote, directed, and starred in this story of a middle aged couple whose 20-year marriage falls apart. Steve Giardino (Alda) and his wife Jackie (Ann-Margret) are both restless and ready to look for love elsewhere, but neither has considered the difficulties of returning to the dating scene. The film follows each of them as they try to adjust to being back in circulation.
"City Slickers" (1991). Billy Crystal stars as Mitch Robbins, a successful but unhappy middle aged man whose problem is that he has "lost his smile." His two best friends, played by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern, try to help by giving him an unusual birthday gift: a dude ranch vacation driving cattle in New Mexico. Temporarily leaving home and hearth behind, the three amigos set off together on this odyssey. Along the way, Mitch learns to like himself again, with the unlikely assistance of the most grizzled, leather-faced cowpoke ever to ride the range (Jack Palance, in an Oscar-winning performance).
I began by talking about the damage done by the midlife crises of middle aged men, but the truth is that this same trauma also afflicts women, although they may not react in quite the same ways. Next week we'll look at some films that portray the distaff side of midlife madness.