Frumpy Old Men

Posted: June 13, 2011 in Cinema, Idle Nonsense, Narrative

Hollywood has long had a problem with its leading men and women aging to the point that it no longer knows quite what to do with them or indeed has use for them. The problem is much worse for women than men, as women are usually limited to playing grande dames and grandmothers as though their lives in old age (past the, um, MILF or hotness years — unless you happen to be Helen Mirren) are defined solely by their offspring. Men sometimes get to play elder statesmen, tycoons, or wizened patriarchs, and even less frequently men of action (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as two battling old dudes in X-Men (or is that too old dudes?) or McKellen (again) in The Lord of the Rings), but in today’s cinema, they’re increasingly tasked with playing frumpy old men lost in the world in some misguided attempt at cinéma vérité to reflect a wider cultural issue where people lose relevance and intrinsic interest with age, finally being reduced to biding one’s time waiting for the reaper. If movie characters don’t die in the course of the story or aren’t introduced as being terminal (The Bucket List), they almost always have a death scare and a trip to the hospital. That’s what old people are good for in movies: death gestures. But this isn’t a case of Hollywood storytelling dealing with the issue responsibly, it’s really just injection of cheap drama without needing to bother to develop worthy antagonists.

With Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Little Fockers, and now Everybody’s Fine (could been titled Everybody’s Goode since the main character is named “Frank Goode” — how obvious is that?), Robert De Niro seems to have finally evolved from playing high-strung cops, mobsters, and psychopaths to playing a frumpy old dude on daily medication. Jack Nicholson could handle being cast against type in About Schmidt, and Clint Eastwood made his lonely, abandoned character in Gran Torino abundantly entertaining, but De Niro is badly miscast in Everybody’s Fine. His entire prior screen persona is about overwhelming others with intensity, and he fares really poorly playing someone diminished in retirement, left behind by his dead spouse, and ignored by his own children. In fact, very little about this character-driven movie was entertaining at all, as it was largely an extended portrayal of people mistreating and lying to De Niro as Frank. The supposed catharsis at the end rang false because even though all the children were caught in their lies, their father’s bland unmasking of their deceit cost them nothing, so there was no dramatic tension to diffuse and no apparent contrition, just a meaningless Hallmark moment around the near-death bed. In fact, the movie was so lackluster, one wonders why bother making it at all? And why bother blogging about it?

  1. If you like b-movies (I gave up on Hollywood long ago), try one called Bubba Ho-Tep. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis (his last film role, I believe) play rest home residents trying to fend off an Egyptian mummy. It’s as absurd as it sounds, but at the same time it makes an ingenuous effort to address our tendency to devalue and discard the aging.

    • Brutus says:

      A friend recommended this film to me a while back and I watched it, but I have to admit I don’t remember it anymore. I’m happy, BTW, to embrace the camp of the b-movie. Too bad more filmmakers don’t realize that’s what they’re making.

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