There is a scene in “The Incredibles” in which the diminutive Edna Mode, wise beyond her size, ponders the crisis that has befallen Bob Parr, the movie’s hero, who has gone off the deep end.
“Men at Robert’s age are often unstable, prone to weakness,” she says, rubbing her chin. Listening, Parr’s wife, the elastic Helen, frets.
The midlife crisis, that period of self-doubt, remorse and mild insanity that wrests people of a certain age from their moorings, is a literary cliche. But filmmakers seem increasingly disposed toward exploring its depths and predicaments. The results of their forays can be seen in at least a half-dozen award-contending films, including “Sideways,” “Closer” and “Before Sunset.”
In “The Incredibles,” which breaks ground as the first major studio animated feature to plumb the subject of depression in a dysfunctional, out-of-place suburban family, the noble hero is wracked with shame over his reduced standing and the unrealized expectations of his destiny. It’s fertile territory for comedy, but the disturbing undertones persist.
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Brad Bird, the film’s writer-director, who finished his first animated movie when he was 13 and who admits only to being in his 40s, says he has wanted to make a film about middle-age angst for two decades.
“I’ve actually always thought that, on a shallow level, midlife crisis is funny,” he says. “It’s interesting and it’s funny. Everyone knows they’re going to die. It’s not until your late 30s that you say, ‘I’m in the middle now — I’ve got as much ahead of me as behind me.’ ”
That’s when the real self-appraisal begins. “It’s a part of continually becoming wise,” Bird says. “Some of your childish assumptions about being where you want to be end up being wrong. Sometimes you arrive at where you wanted to be and all your problems are not solved. That was what triggered it for me.”
In Bird’s case, he had told himself that when he finally directed a project he had written — it was “Family Dog,” a 1985 episode of Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” — “everything would be fixed, that all the solutions in the rest of my life would naturally fall into place, and of course they didn’t.”
The subject crystallizes in “The Incredibles” when Parr, much diminished from his days of glory, arrives home in his cranky jalopy and encounters his tricycle-riding neighbor.
“What are you waiting for?” Parr snaps.
“I don’t know — something amazing, I guess,” the boy responds.
“Me, too, kid, me,
In “Being Julia,” in which Annette Bening plays a despairing diva, the subject is not so much unrealized dreams as dreams that, once achieved, have become empty and stale. Added to that is the fear of the protagonist part that her charms are fading with the advancing years. It’s a plague visited on all beautiful women, says screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who adapted the screenplay from W. Somerset Maugham’s novella.
“When they reach that age — when they’re on the turn, as I call it — it must be awful for them,” says Harwood, who is 70. “They look in the mirror and the panic must be immense, because that’s what they’ve been about for 50 years. You become internally hysterical, and that drives certain actions.”
For the Julia Lambert character in Maugham’s tale, the action takes the form of an intemperate fling with a callous dandy, who then dumps her for a much younger woman. “There’s a feeling that you can prolong your youth,” Harwood says, speaking from his home in London. “Some women feel that by falling in love with a younger man, they have delayed the inevitable. But they haven’t: It’s self-delusion of the highest order. Men do it, too. It’s vanity, vanity.
“At the base of it,” he says, “is a terrible fear of death.”
The producer of “Julia,” Robert Lantos, cautions that the film seeks not to redeem middle age from oblivion, but simply to show someone triumphing over it.
Such themes, he says, were considered mainstream two or three decades ago. But now, with Hollywood’s enormous focus on attracting teenagers, such subjects are relegated to specialty projects.
“Films for older audiences are still a rarity, and are particularly challenging as far as finding an audience,” he says. “But there’s nothing challenging about watching this one other than that it’s made for an older audience. You don’t have to be a cinephile to like it.”
Jim Taylor — who adapted the screenplay of “Sideways” with director Alexander Payne from Rex Pickett’s novel — says the picture is part of a wonderful trend of smaller dramatic films that hasn’t been evident, to a large degree, since the 1970s.
In “Sideways,” Paul Giamatti plays a struggling, deeply frustrated novelist grasping for a book deal. Despondent over his failed marriage, he comes unhinged when he hears that his ex-wife has happily moved on to another relationship. His friend, played by Thomas Haden Church, is an over-the-hill actor hunting obliviously for one last, unencumbered fling before getting married.
“The focus on the teen market is a phenomenon that has undermined what’s theatrically possible in movies,” says Taylor, 42.
Yet the success of “Sideways,” which compiled seven Golden Globe nominations, has been inspirational, he adds. “It’s great for people who want to make adult movies that don’t necessarily have an A-list cast, or a big budget. It broadens the horizons.”
Much of “Sideways’ ” depth comes from its dashed hopes and shattered romances. In the movie, and in others that explore similar ideas, the characters must contend with the proposition that middle age often means making peace with the status quo.
“It’s finally accepting the limitation of what you’re going to be,” says John Curran, the director of “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” a film about two couples and their fevered entanglements whose very title evokes a wistful yearning for a better past. The desperation of lost youth, the film suggests, inspires dangerous affairs that destroy marriages.
“When you’re young, the vitality of youth encourages you to think very broadly about the possibilities of life,” says Curran. “But as you get older, your life becomes layered with responsibilities. When all the parts of your life settle into a routine — and maybe you don’t have the career, the house that you wanted — you think that only a new love is going to shake up your life.”
There are lessons in such behavior, of course. In “Live Here,” amid the mundane dramas of everyday life, the characters’ illicit passion for each other creates not only searing wounds but the beginnings of wisdom.
“Considering the agony and everything they go through,” Curran says, “what they’re left with is very simple — adultery isn’t a solution.”
In “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” adapted by Larry Gross from two short stories by Andre Dubus, a voiceover at the beginning of the film paints a stark glimpse of a middle-age moment:
“In his youth he had the virtues of madness: rage and passion and generosity. Now he gets a damp sponge from the kitchen and wipes dried ice cream from his car seat.”
Gross, 51, whose last produced screenplays were “Prozac Nation” and “Crime and Punishment in Suburbia,” says that mainstream films have abdicated adult relationships, which means adult problems.
“Studio people have been very up front about it,” he maintains. “They say, ‘That’s not the business we’re in.'”
“Closer,” the Mike Nichols film that delves into a conflicted quartet of lovers, is an extraordinary exception, Gross says, to the proposition that studios generally stay away from grave dramas pitched to adults. But the rash of independent films that have taken up the cause have effectively filled the void.
Struggles of maturity
“There’s almost a sense of relief that reality is available to us again,” Gross says. “Our social and cultural life is in a state of conflict and anxiety, and one way or another it will have to find expression. It’s good to put the audience through this.” From Julie Delpy’s point of view, the emerging struggles of maturity are almost invariably tied to finding the ideal mate, or keeping the one you have. “Love is not this impossible dream to attain, but it’s difficult to make those choices — you have to be a responsible adult,” says Delpy, 35, who stars in and co-wrote, with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke, the screenplay of “Before Sunset.” The pic contemplates romance interrupted and roads not taken.
“There’s a lot of peace that comes from maturity,” says Delpy. “It comes to people later and later, but our society is made that way. It pushes you to stay adolescent.”
In the film, Delpy’s character, who has learned from experience the fluidity of love, says, “You can never replace anyone — what’s lost is lost.”
Even without hard-wrung experiences of their own, some filmmakers see middle age as a bountiful source of inspiration. Dan Harris, who is just 25, wrote about characters almost twice his age in his original screenplay “Imaginary Heroes,” and then directed veteran actors Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels in the film.
“The burden has been placed on artists and filmmakers to ask questions, to reevaluate their lives and the state of the family,” Harris says. “A lot of filmmakers feel that’s prime real estate to explore.”
In “Imaginary Heroes,” a family is riven by two tragedies, one obvious, the other a dark secret. In classic crisis mode of middle years, Weaver, playing the mother, lapses into marijuana and pettiness, while Daniels as the father disengages from everyone, staring blankly from a park bench as the world revolves around him.
“If you create a world and a set of characters that are recognizable,” Harris says, “you can push the boundaries a little bit of the events that happen, and still make all the adventures and actions part of the common story that we all know.”