Okay, here’s some bad news: we’re all growing old. Obvious, sure, but it’s as inevitable as the tides. Even Benjamin Button, for all his genetic freakutations, succumbs to the aging process in the end. He may look like Brad Pitt, but inside he’s wearing terrible cardigans and wondering where he left the lawnmower. The key is not to fight it: to accept that experience, wisdom and a good nap in front of the bowls are well worth those grey hairs and knees that go ‘clank’ when you stand up. In Hollywood, though, this is not the way. As Jodie Foster’s tragi-drama-comedy The Beaver shows, the full-blown on (and off)-screen middle years meltdown is a thing of scary power. Getting older in movies is, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, about raging against the dying of the light, preferably with an array of fast cars, blondes crazed road-trips. It’s largely a male preserve on the big screen - actors like Greg Kinnear, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Michael Douglas and Nicolas Cage have made it their own - but the odd woman succumbs to the pressures of impending middle age as the following checklist proves. If any of the following things ring a bell, it's time to call your life coach.
Passing the big 4-0 is no reason for a wardrobe malfunction, as Bond has proved down the years. Not everyone can be as svelte as 007 – those tuxes don’t come cheap – but there are still some key ground rules. Hats are bad Shellsuits are a no-no, unless you’re under 20 or in The Beastie Boys. This brings us to Broken Flowers’ wealthy retiree Don Johnstone, played with crumpled majesty by Bill Murray. Marvel at the sight of the Murricane clad in an array of Fred Perry tracksuits, padding about his home and contemplating a life empty enough to allow it him to pad about his house in Fred Perry tracksuits. It’s one of several bloopers Don makes. There’s also the small matter of his four exes. Like Odysseus on arthritis meds, he visits them trying to find the son he didn’t know he had. Bill Murray’s on-screen midlife crisis started early – about ten minutes into Stripes, to be exact – and he makes it look almost fun, but don’t try this stuff at home.
Traumatic events can spark a plunge into middle-crisis-dom. One minute you’re gainfully employed; the next you’re the world’s greatest expert on Jeremy Kyle. It’s a painful process as Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) discovers in Noah Baumbach’s indie. Greenberg, recovering from a breakdown, is a socially maladroit fish out of water in LA. The cause of his breakdown isn’t specified, but if it's not something to do with his transition from musician to middle-aged wash-out, we’ll eat our hipster beret. The crestfallen register on Stiller’s face is a 100 miles from the man who gave us Le Tigre - it's an impressive new direction for Stiller - but Bill Murray remains the king of the slow-motion crisis. Best is Lost In Translation’s B-lister Bob Harris, a lonely man living a soul-sapping existence in a Tokyo hotel. Booze, call girls (“Rip my stockings!”), the gym: Bob tries them all, but it's Scarlett Johansson’s Yale grad who gives his soul a hug. Marcello Mastroianni’s creatively blocked director Guido has a similar solution in 8 ½. So there it is: supermodels are the answer. Simple really.
The age-inappropriate fling can be another sign that things have gone a bit awry in the growing-old-gracefully stakes. Middle-aged male sexuality is rarely pretty on the big screen – just look at Richard Gere’s hooker-frequenting cop in Brooklyn’s finest, Kevin Spacey’s teen lust in American Beauty and all of Blame It On Rio – but throw a bunch of time-travelling jacuzzi dweller into the mix and things get complex, especially with drunken ‘future’ mums about for extra jeopardy. The Hot Tubbers at least look young. In Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel’s ‘tec looks like a man on a decade-long bender. Abel Ferrara’s sin-smeared indie provides possibly the worst example for any man approaching middle age. It’s not just men who take refuge in younger partners, though. Among all the embers of male virility, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) rarely gets a mention, but it’s unlikely that this 30-something temptress was entirely satisfied with her lot when she drops the nookie bomb on the naive Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman).
Bad things happen in movie swimming pools. If there isn’t a scary monster at the bottom (The Hole), or something human clogging up the filter (Les Diaboliques), a Bond villain’s using it to store his hungry sharks (Thunderball). Burt Lancaster arguably has it even worse in The Swimmer. He’s Ned Merrill, a successful ad exec, seemingly happy as a starched-and-pressed blueprint for aspiring Don Drapers everywhere. He’s even got an impressive front crawl. So what’s wrong? Well, everything. In one of the great midlife breakdown movies, Ned falls apart in his togs. This adaptation of John Cheever’s novella sees him swim across drowsy New York suburbia, leapfrogging fences as he goes, and encountering neighbours who remind him of his past failings - the Olympic 1km ‘crawl through a private hell. It’s strange, elliptical, and, thanks to Britain’s tough trespass laws, almost impossible to replicate. Try aquarobics instead.
It's easily done. Just look at Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingstone) in Office Space. The tyranny of ‘Hawaiian Shirt Days’, TPS reports and Bill Lumbergh causes a tiny explosion in his brain stem and before you can say ‘grand larceny’, he’s hatching a cunning scheme to rip off his soul-thieving employers Initech. It’s a regular pattern in movies. Recently there’s been Keanu Reeves’ con-turned-thespian-turned-heistman in Henry’s Crime, who fill his empty diary with Chekhov and ripped-off cheques. Midlife crises strike at any point and the loss of even a crappy job can cause existential angst to tip into something more, well, criminal. Step forward Dennis Hopper’s crazed ex-cop, Howard Payne, in Speed. Sure, a cheap gold watch is a crummy leaving present but blowing up every form of transport in LA seems a bit of an over-reaction. Get a hobby. And no, not armed assault, D-Fens (pictured) and JCVD.
If there’s a grimmer portrayal of midlife carnage than Ivan’s XTC we’ve yet to see it. Technically, it’s an end-of-life crisis movie, seeing Hollywood agent Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston) is dead when the film starts and isn’t a whole lot less dead when it ends. The morality tale in the middle, though, is a stark reminder that medicating your way through this phase is A Bad Idea. Ivan’s a cross between Ari Gold and Tony Montana, and not in a good way. He’s usually four martinis to the good, and his nostrils would win first prize in a K2 lookalike contest. Bernard Rose’s film – an adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – is a cautionary tale for any successful man who’s burnt bridges on his way to the top. The day comes when he needs better friends than his star client, A-list asshole Don West (Peter Weller) and a big bag of Columbia’s finest, a predicament Nicolas Cage’s Bad Lieutenant can relate to in Werner Herzog’s brilliantly sleazy spoonful of gumbo. He’s higher than a space rocket most of the time. It's a situation that impedes his police work but not his ability to see dancing souls or giant iguanas.
Most road-trip movies owe some kind of debt to Homer’s epic travel blog The Odyssey, but if you look more closely you can see why the whole concept of a long journey through weird terrain is fraught with problems for the middle-aged man. Odysseus’s midlife crisis – hey, the man just wants to go home – brings him face to face with scary singing women, men with one eyeball and Simon Cowell hair, and weird nymphs with potions. That’s Leicester Square on a Friday night, we hear you say. Sure, but transpose those beasties into the kind of metaphorical perils faced by Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt’s Winnebago trip (dangers provided by Kathy Bates’ overbearing matriarch), Paul Giamatti’s struggling writer Miles in Sideways (ditto, ‘merlot’) or the gang in Wild Hogs (ditto, ‘a leather-clad Ray Liotta’) and you’ve got a recipe for much teeth-grinding angst. And, as Martin Blank (John Cusack) discovers in Grosse Point Blank, not matter how much loneliness is spreading through your soul, a high-school reunion is probably not the answer.
The urge to do something crazy – buy a sports car, build a boat, invade Poland - is middle age’s way of telling you it’s time to step out of those cosy routines. You’ll be dead soon, what the heck. Movies are full of forty and fifty somethings making radical volte-faces. Look at Bulworth, in which Warren Beatty’s politico takes out a contract on his own life. You can’t get much more radical than assassinating yourself - except maybe rapping your way to power. So he tries that too. Then there’s Bogart’s industrialist in Sabrina, who takes several days to realise that moving to Paris with Audrey Hepburn is better than working (several days!), Hustle & Flow’s DJay (Terrence Howard) who swaps pimping for hip hop, and Hannah And Her Sisters’ Krishna convert Elliott (Woody Allen). Rather than romance, rap and tambourines, The Weather Man’s David Spritz (Nicolas Cage) takes up archery. But he’s not content with just firing arrows at a target, he’s got to carry his bow around with him like William Tell, because it’s not enough just to have a midlife crisis in the movies, you’ve got to let everyone else know about. And because, you know, he’s Nicolas Cage.
The time comes in any man’s life when humorously peeing in swimming pools, jokes involving farting grannies and starring in a film with Rob Schneider seem like a good idea. Don’t worry, it will pass.
As admirable as this urge is, on celluloid it’s usually shown to be riddled with flaws. Look at John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) in Preston Sturges’s classic satire Sullivan’s Travels. In a flash of dissatisfaction he’s decided to turn his back on the fluffy comedies that have made him so successful in Hollywood and make An Important Movie. It’s the equivalent of Judd Apatow deciding to make Hotel Rwanda. Needless to say the studios don’t buy it and neither does Sturges who pokes fun at Hollywood’s indulgence and faux-conscience. Not only is it Sullivan’s midlife crisis movie, you could argue it’s Tinseltown’s, as LA bigwigs soul-searched through the 1940s. At the other end of the spectrum, we give you Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible, in The Incredibles. He’s got the heart of a superhero but the belly of a dart’s player. This makes squeezing into his supersuit a problem. But then, isn’t all that superhero work is a thing of his younger days anyway? (Clue: it isn’t.)