Is there a future for midlife romance at the movies?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/10/16/is-there-a-future-for-midlife-romance-at-the-movies/

Whatever happened to midlife romance at the movies?

And by midlife romance, I mean films like “Enough Said,” the well received comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, in his last screen performance.

Or “Something’s Gotta Give” which paired Jack Nicholson with Diane Keaton, or “Sideways” with Paul Giammatti and Virginia Madsen.

These last two are over a decade old now. Why haven’t we seen many new offerings?

Lynda Obst, producer of the smash hit “Interstellar” and also “Sleepless in Seattle,” a midlife romance with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan that was a big hit in 1993, says the answer comes in three parts.

“In midlife romances, people are unlikely to be ambushed, blown-up or saved by caped superheroes,” Obst noted.

“Secondly, they are not interested in our mid-life romances in China.”

And finally, she quipped, “We have midlife romances?”

These days, she added, for those of us who want to fantasize, “We’ll have to chew on ‘Something’s Gotta Give.’”

Not that the midlife romance genre was ever overdone in Hollywood, but, apparently, the era of the big franchise blockbuster has made the midlife romance — as well as the more politically and socially oriented ‘big issue’ films — even rarer than they used to be.

A look at Box Office Mojo’s release schedule of movies for the remainder of this year, for example, promises only one film that sounds like it might be in the mid-life romance category:

“By the Sea” is the new film with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt — written, produced and directed by Jolie, about a married couple, drifting apart, who visit a small seaside town in Europe and become enchanted with the locals. Whether this brings them together or drives them apart for good remains to be seen. But it looks like the only game in town this holiday movie season for viewers looking for more than CGI and villains that don’t die until the hero kills them at least 15 times.

Of course, Jolie and Pitt have the star power to bankroll their own projects. Even so, “By the Sea” was produced on a modest $10 million budget. Movies like this are not expected to make more than $20 million. (“Enough Said,” for example, made roughly $17.5 million). Though with super stars they can be hits.

But if the demographics mean fewer midlife stories from Hollywood, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Some of the best midlife romance films of the past two decades came from producers overseas.

“Remains of the Day,” well, remains in our vivid memory as a true masterpiece of subdued romantic tension. It starred Anthony Hopkins as the proper English butler who can’t muster the courage to express the feelings he has for the housekeeper played by Emma Thomson (in one of her best performances).

If you want to include “Sense and Sensibility,” which also stars Thomson, then Ang Lee gets a tip of the hat for producing three of the most enjoyable midlife romances of the past 20 years: “Eat Drink Man Woman,” which follows the romantic escapades of an aging chef and his three daughters in China , followed by Lee’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel with Thomson and Kate Winslet — and then his 2000 masterpiece, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Billed as an epic story of love in ancient China — with superbly choreographed martial arts, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the story of Michelle Yeo’s unrequited love for monk and martial arts master Chow Yun Fat, who dies in her arms.

“Shall We Dance,” the Japanese ode to midlife romance, was so popular in its home country it was predictably remade into a not-quite-so engaging American version with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.

And the genre is still alive in Europe. Case in point: a marvelous film starring Jeremy Irons released last year, “Night Train to Lisbon.” Irons plays Raimund, a burnt out academic teaching part time classes in the Switzerland equivalent of a community college when he chances upon a girl contemplating suicide on a bridge. The encounter leads him on an investigative quest to Lisbon and into the dark history of a family tied up in the political movement of communists against the oppressive government of Prime Minister Antonio Salazar.

But while he’s there, an accident ruining his eyeglasses sends Raimund to the clinic of Dr. Mariana, played by the understated German actress Martina Gedeck. (Superb supporting performances are also given by Bruno Ganz and Christopher Lee.) Over the course of the story — Mariana’s family connections help Raimund in his sleuthing, but it’s also apparent that there is a growing attraction between the two. The film ends in a cliffhanger with Raimund at the station, having to choose between boarding the train to Switzerland and remaining with Mariana.

Of course, films like “Night Train” thrive on the characters, their wants and often unfulfilled desires. Appreciation of such challenging material comes mostly with the wisdom of middle age and often escapes the young and restless. The seriousness and complexity of lives lived is not the formula for the more globalized market today which wants action and adventure on a grand scale.

Still, there are signs of a new trend, said Mary Dalton, professor of film and media at Wake Forest University.

Consider the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” series, she said.

“Every time there is a movie with old actors in romances (and they keep coming along), my mother wants me to take her to see them,” she said. “These are usually smaller films, so the return on investment is strong enough to keep them in development and release.”

But, what about films for our demographic — the not-quite-so-old viewers?

“It does seem to be that most of these films are small, slice of life films, like the incomparable ‘Before Sunset,’ or about unrequited or thwarted love, like ‘The Visitor,’ ‘Cairo Time,’ ‘The Sessions,’ and the current release ‘Learning to Drive,’” Dalton said.

None of these films get very wide release, of course, so depending on where you live, they will only show up on cable or Netflix.

But perhaps the delivery platform is itself part of the answer to the question of where the genre of midlife romance movies is headed. As the cinema continues to cater to younger audiences who want epic scale action and adventure, it may be that the home theatre, fed by Netflix, Amazon and HBO is where the future of the smaller, intimate stories will find their most appreciative audiences. Let’s hope, though, that the home couch is not the only place left where the solitary middle aged may “dare to dream.”

John Farrell is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology from Basic Books. He writes about science, technology and media for Forbes.

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