Part road movie, part coming-of-age story, “Fifty-Nothing” is a bracingly candid, frequently funny portrait of male friendship at middle age. Smartly written and directed with a welcome lack of snarkiness, the film finds two Angelenos navigating such midlife indignities as colonoscopies, blind dates and the senior golf circuit. With a targeted and sustained marketing effort, pic could certainly recoup on a theatrical release; at the very least, it’s an impressive calling card for helmer Thomas Johnston.
Given recent atrocities like “Old Dogs,” the very notion of a thoughtful, intelligent comedy about a friendship between middle-aged men seems like an oxymoron. But “Fifty-Nothing” neither exploits nor condescends to the unpleasant aspects of growing older; it confronts them directly and with due humor.
Scribes Johnston, Drew Pillsbury and Martin Gottlieb use prickly topics like hair loss, dating anxiety and chronic pain as departure points, allowing them to explore a range of male vulnerability and desire. And most of the female characters also have an age-appropriate depth that’s increasingly uncommon in comedies these days.
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In an effort to distract his miserable, just-divorced buddy Adam (Martin Grey), ladies’ man Jon (Pillsbury) arranges a trip to the desert for some golf therapy. Shades of “Swingers” are evident, as the socially awkward Adam reluctantly accompanies his cool, confident buddy on the drive to Palm Springs.
Along the way, the guys bond, bicker, and encounter several women including Peggy (Kathleen Noone), a frighteningly horny sexagenarian; Alix (Michaela McManus), a gorgeous coquette who’s much too young for Jon; and Kate (Wendie Malick), who’s smart and funny — and happens to be Alix’s mom.
When Alix, hoping to set up Kate and Adam, arranges a dinner party, a memorable, awkwardly funny evening ensues. Cautious and skeptical, Kate and Adam don’t immediately click, but beneath their brittle exchange it’s clear they yearn to connect. It’s a credit to Johnston’s measured direction that he allows the evening to unfold so naturally, and to Malick and Grey’s performances that their dynamic feels so believable.
Less believable, perhaps, is a far-flung scene in which Jon, high on painkillers after a back injury, finds himself the unwitting recipient of one siren’s affections. Johnston plays the scene for laughs, artfully setting up and revealing a comic surprise that also serves as a kind of comeuppance.
There’s an awful lot of talking (and a few belabored metaphors) between the men on the golf course that briefly detracts from “Fifty-Nothing’s” otherwise fluid pace. Pic could also benefit from a song selection more rooted in the ’70s to help underscore the age-specific humor and overcome occasional pacing lapses. Tech aspects are solid throughout, as is thesping, right down to the supporting players, including veteran Noone (“All My Children”), Steve Hytner (“Hung”) and Jessalyn Gilsig (“Glee”).
By way of audience consideration, it’s worth noting that some of the cast members from that Gen X classic “Reality Bites” will be closing in on 50 in just a few years. “Fifty-Nothing” is a refreshing, amiable reminder of an underserved demographic waiting to be acknowledged.