Esquire magazine’s motto is “man at his best,” but if you only watched movies and television, the last couple of decades would have made it harder for you to figure out just when, particularly, a man could count on hitting his golden years – that plateau where health, wealth and hard-won wisdom combine at a tolerable average.
It certainly isn’t the gormless, sullen teen years. Senior citizens on both the big and small screen are never more than a scene away from death’s door, while being stripped of their dignity at every moment until then. The twenties are a hectic age full of risk and failure, overridden with urgent sexual agendas that have to be filled in the waning moments before marriage and family assert their priorities.
That leaves middle age, the period when future health issues are mere omens, earning potential is at its highest, and the mortifications of one’s teens and twenties should have taught one at least enough to avoid some of the larger – and most of the smaller – social and emotional blunders that grow in the thicket of life. Think again.
The middle-aged man on TV and in films is no paragon of wary maturity these days, but a comic figure – an impulsive buffoon, forever endangering himself with ill-considered feats of physical risk, injuring himself with his ever-expanding clumsiness, as a thickening waistline, declining eyesight, and pitiful hand-eye coordination aggravated by his suddenly sausage-like fingers. In sitcoms and commercials he’s a staple figure, regarded with patient exasperation by his wife and children, who wait patiently so they can push the button or make the phone call that will end his expensive misadventures. In his lighter moments, the middle-aged man is nothing more than a variation on Homer Simpson.
In a darker light, the middle-aged man is a menace – an emotional and financial thug waiting to burst out from the comic oaf’s polo shirt and baggy khakis, thanks to the fiendish imperative of the midlife crisis. In his latest film, Solitary Man, Michael Douglas is the embodiment of that midlife menace – a role he’s been perfecting at least since he played Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko in Wall Street in 1987.
In Solitary Man, Douglas is Ben Kalmen, a fallen Gekko – once the head of a fantastically successful chain of BMW dealerships, he’s now divorced and bankrupt, disgraced after running a scam that destroyed his empire, his obsessive womanizing nuked his marriage. Desperate to get back in the game, he’s dating a woman whose father can pull the strings necessary for him to get a new dealership – an arrangement he sabotages when he sleeps with her bitter college-bound daughter.
Douglas’s Ben is a superannuated charm-boy, a defensive cynic who describes every relationship as a “transaction” as a way of suggesting that everyone – and especially those who’ve been hurt by his moral abdication – got something they wanted out of it, even if it wasn’t pleasant. Ben must have felt like a particularly literary creation for screenwriter/co-director Brian Koppelman, but he one of the least sympathetic characters I’ve encountered onscreen in years (no mean feat, that,) so much so that,near the end, when he’s the victim of a particularly vicious beating, it felt more like rough karma than a criminal assault.
Near the end, he confesses that it was fear of death that inspired Ben to recklessly destroy his family and business, which would have been a bit more profound if the first scene of the film, set nearly seven years before the body of the action, hadn’t given that away. In a secular world, the finality of death is clearly such a bring-down that it excuses almost any reaction, regardless of its foolishness or harm.
I’m not sure if the male midlife crisis even existed at the dawn of the talking picture, though it certainly seems like one of those dismal social phenomena that spread with the postwar social innovations of the boomer generation. We’ll probably be seeing more Ben Kalmens in movies and on television before we see less; indeed, this fall sees the release of I Love You, Phillip Morris, starring Jim Carrey as a Virginia cop and family man whose midlife crisis reveals to him that he’s not only gay, but flamboyantly, outrageously queer. Since the modern gay lifestyle is apparently among the most aspirational (at least if you believe movies and TV,) he becomes a con man to keep himself in Versace shirts and Piaget watches.
A huge demographic bulge is passing from middle age to senior citizen as you read this, and as they’ve always felt it imperative to share their experience in every form of media, stories of midlife men squandering the last shreds of male grace will be told again and again.