Time to grow up? Jordan Gelber and Donna Murphy in Dark Horse
In the 2008 comedy Step Brothers, oversized thirtysomething kids Will Ferrell and John C Reilly burst into the marital bedroom shared by their respective parents. Squirming with anticipation, they beg to turn their own twin beds into a bunk. Reluctant approval secured, they bound away. Seconds and a sickening crash later, a distraught Reilly reappears, wailing: “Those bunk beds were a terrible idea. Why did you let us do it?”
Over the past decade, cinema screens have been overrun with such characters—adult males in various stages of arrested development, often sitting at home in bedrooms festooned with posters and action toys. Step Brothers may be caricature but it’s revealing: from arthouse to multiplex man-children lead in films, from Steve Carell in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, to pretty much any character played by Ferrell or Ben Stiller, to the bachelor-party lost boys in The Hangover (which took $470 million worldwide) and Paul Giamatti’s toddler tantrums in the vineyards in Sideways. Even the recent Muppets film played with the oddity of a fully grown man (Jason Segel) preferring to hang out with toys rather than his cute romantic interest Amy Adams.
Now there are two more films in this mould. This May, Segel was back, this time as a 30 year old slacking in the basement of his mother’s house in Jeff, Who Lives at Home. In cinemas from 29th June Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse focuses on a plump mummy’s boy who hooks up with a depressed young woman who has returned home after a failed love affair.
So where do they come from, these adult adolescents? And what are they about? Dark Horse is a gentler variation on Solondz’s earlier films like the breakthrough Happiness (1998) which impressed and disgusted audiences in equal measure. Some critics claimed Happiness was simply an exercise in audience discomfort, like pulling on a hangnail. It showed dysfunction—abuse and misery—beneath affluent conformity and amidst these grotesques, the masturbating anonymous caller played by Philip Seymour Hoffman emerged as the film’s most sympathetic character. Over the intervening years, milder versions of Hoffman’s character in Happiness—mixed with elements of Richard Linklater’s aimless student in Slacker and some tics of the improvised film trend known as mumblecore—have drifted into the mainstream. The best of these wallflowers (usually played by Hoffman or John C Reilly) are illuminating human studies but many of the others are plain irritating or downright creepy.
Odd guys on screen, losers and underdogs, are hardly new, but the vintage models ran on different fuel. Jack Lemmon’s character in The Apartment or any Woody Allen lead was frustrated when others, less talented, ran away with life’s prizes. Benjamin’s angry rejection in The Graduate of the smug “plastics” ethos and hypocrisy of his parents’ generation propelled him out of that diving suit and into the Alfa Romeo to the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel. Bobby Dupea, Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces may rant and rage but he’s still searching for something better.
That energy had a kind of nobility very different from the passive aggression of the new old teenagers. Typically college-educated yet devoid of ambition, they don’t even glance at the prize; it’s out of reach. And what’s more they despise it, so there. They’ve sussed that life is not a Hollywood plot cliché—not for them snappy dialogue, art-directed aspirational interiors and a narrative arc that overcomes obstacles to recognition and fulfilment. The fact is that—like Jason Segel’s Jeff—this generation is metaphorically stuck in the basement while the baby-boomers live upstairs. They’re constrained by something more serious and enduring than a credit crunch; it’s a demographic and cultural squeeze.
The 50, 60 and 70-somethings who lived through the 20th century cult of youth are not going to give it up. In The Graduate, handsome Mrs Robinson comes to eventually seem ludicrous because her youth is behind her (although Anne Bancroft was only in her thirties when she played her). By contrast, in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Susan Sarandon as Jeff’s mother is still hot in her seventh decade. Her generation are hanging onto more than the deeds of the house whilst the ageing kids struggle, as it were, to scrape together a deposit.
The man-child’s relationship to women is also affected by an in-built defeatism. In these films, a little understanding is the most you can hope for in life, most likely dispensed by a sympathetic woman. So female characters, however sexy, are forced by the infantilism of the men back into traditional nurturing roles, becoming by default patient mothers, nurses or strict schoolmistresses. Actresses are rarely allowed the range to behave badly. Charlize Theron did recently buck the trend, acting like a crazed hormonal teenager to brilliant effect in Young Adult (tagline: “Everyone Gets Old. Not Everyone Grows Up”)—but though the film recouped its modest budget, it was not a huge success; a beautiful woman out of control was too unsettling. Last year’s Bridesmaids, which took nearly $300 million, flirted amusingly with the idea of women behaving badly but the heroine ultimately bowed to old-fashioned romantic redemption. And baking cupcakes.
The bitter joke at the end of The Graduate is that for all his rebellion, Benjamin is destined to repeat his parents’ mistakes. Today’s screen-men may not even get that opportunity. In response, they retreat into sullen apathy. With a less than promising future, they look backwards; they are ironisers and classifiers—look at those Star Wars collections and “best ever” lists—and they stay in their rooms and blame their parents. They need to get out more.