Twenty-five years ago, Christopher Guest made a lovely little movie called The Big Picture. It is a mostly gentle satire about Hollywood, which features Kevin Bacon as a young film school graduate who has come out west to make his fortune. The movie he wants to make – the one that the whole industry is buzzing over – is about a love triangle among three forty-somethings stranded in a snow-bound cabin. Of course, almost as soon as our hero arrives in Hollywood, the suggestions begin. Instead of two men and one woman, let’s make it two women and one man. Instead of a cabin in winter, how about a beach in summer? And instead of characters in their forties, let’s have them be in their twenties.
I find myself thinking about that final suggestion more and more. Twenty-five years ago, I was in my twenties. Today – well, my forties are becoming an increasingly distant memory. Ageism, I have always been told by those who work in Hollywood, is the most entrenched “ism” there is. It was probably always in the cards that mainstream American film would begin showing more interest in older characters as the baby boom generation began signing up for their AARP memberships. Indeed, two years ago, Michael Haneke’s Amour, starring two actors in their eighties, won accolades and Oscar nominations. There are a great many formidable actors past seventy who are still going strong and finding interesting roles. Hollywood, which has never shown much interest in portraying age on screen, has made genuine progress on this front.
But sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. And sometimes, in the fickle world of film, the best of intentions don’t always result in the best of movies. Here are three movies concerned with ageing that have received limited release in American theatres in 2014. They all feature first-rate actors. Only one is an American production. One is French, while the other is a French-British co-production. I really wanted to like them all. Problem is, I didn’t.
On My Way
Director Emmanuelle Bercot’s loosely-plotted road trip provides an intriguing character for screen legend Catherine Deneuve. This is essentially a senior citizen coming-of-age story about Bettie, who realises rather suddenly that her life has not amounted to very much. She hits the road, has an affair with a much younger man, and eventually winds up transporting her grandson across a section of French countryside. Deneuve is quite good, and the movie also offers delightful performances by the very young Nemo Schiffman as the grandson Charly, and the very old Claude Gensac as Bettie’s nagging mother Annie. Unfortunately, the plotting is so loose – with the central dramatic construct involving Bettie and Charly’s trip coming very late in the proceedings – that the movie as a whole doesn’t pack much punch. Pleasant moments, but nothing special.
Love is Strange
This is the American entry, and it has been a critical darling. It deals with an ageing homosexual couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. The problem is that it is trying so hard to be meaningful and important that it sucks the joy right out of some very likeable performers and becomes ponderous. Long time partners Ben and George marry at the beginning, and that marriage kicks off a chain of events which forces them to live apart from one another. This is a very slow movie, where nothing happens for long stretches, and unfortunately, the plot favours Ben’s rather mundane domestic situation over George’s more interesting living arrangements. There are other odd choices throughout – such as the incomprehensible casting of Darren Burrows, and the odd use of ellipsis at the end. This is essentially a modern retelling of Leo McCarey’s magnificent Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), still the best examination of aging that Hollywood has ever produced, with none of McCarey’s sense of humour, or sense of life to be lived.
It’s easy to feel like a snob when you write about movies. Easy to side with Andrew Sarris over your sister-in-law. Easy to scoff at the latest Marvel production. So when a movie like Roger Michel’s Le Week-End scores a very impressive 89 from critics on Rotten Tomatoes but only a pedestrian 6.4 from fans on IMDB, I am very proud to side with the fans against all those critical snobs. Let’s be honest. Despite the presence of excellent actors Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, this just isn’t a very good movie. Their characters, Meg and Nick, might be Celine and Jesse (from Richard Linklater’s Sunrise trilogy) some thirty years later. And with British accents. They have come to Paris for a romantic weekend, even though by this point in their relationship, they are basically sick of the sight of each other. For the first half of the movie, they wander Paris mumbling angrily at each other. Then, a deus ex machina in the person of Jeff Goldblum shows up to speak more loudly and cause a plot to coalesce. There are a few nice moments, but it closes with a very unlikely feel-good resolution that essentially betrays all that came before. This is a significant disappointment.
Toward the end of the year, Bill Murray starred in Theodroe Melfi’s St. Vincent, a generally more satisfying gentle comedy about a crusty old guy and his young friend. St. Vincent relies on some rather unbelievable plot contrivances to make a lot of the painful subject matter (like bullying and gambling) go away. But it has a good heart, and if Murray’s accent is somewhat dodgy throughout, he and young co-star Jaeden Lieberher have enough chemistry to make the whole thing work. My friend John Douglas, professor of Film at American University, has dubbed this type of movie “curmudgecom.” (see Gran Torino or Scent of a Woman.) And maybe the crusty old guy will become Hollywood’s standard treatment of age. I’d like to think there is more range out there. I’d like to think I have more to look forward to, both on screen, and in my off screen life.