Ah, the comedy of coming of middle age. The sad, respectable adulthood of the formerly young and cool has been milked for laughs since at least The Big Chill (1983), acclaimed in its time for brilliantly documenting the Baby Boomers’ unwilling decline into middle-class stability, and now known to anyone under the age of thirty as “that movie where all the sad-sacks danced around in a kitchen.”
Successive generations—including your generation, dear reader, either sooner or later (heed the wise words of Grampa Simpson)—have eased into the genre like a fine rocking chair, using it to rest their aching bones. This week alone, we’re getting no less than two examples of the Coming-of-Middle-Age comedy: While We’re Young, a new movie by Noah Baumbach, and Younger, a new TV show by Sex and the City’s own Darren Star, adapted from the book by Pamela Redmond Satran.
Yet as the genre, like the unwitting adults it focuses on, has aged, it has become increasingly hackneyed.
While We’re Young is a tasteful and gently witty story about two people in their forties who try to make the most of their fading youth by hanging out with, and sucking the life force from, a couple of kids in their mid-twenties. And Younger is a tasteless and schticky story about . . . well, about the same damn thing.
Though Baumbach, a darling of the indie-movie circuit and a New York aristocrat if there ever was one, would likely blanch to find himself in such close proximity to the chick-lit shelf, the parallels are hard to miss. Consume either of these entertainments, and you’ll get the same question as an aftertaste: Is there any way to become an adult other than having a baby? According to the Coming-of-Middle-Age comedy, there is not.
The heroes of While We’re Young—Josh (Ben Stiller) and his improbably named wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts)—live a life of genteel, upper-middle-class decay. Josh is a filmmaker who’s spent eight years struggling to complete an earnest political documentary. Cornelia is the daughter of a legendary documentarian and still works for her father. (It’s a depressingly vague explanation of what this woman does all day.)
The pathos of aging splits, all too predictably, into two distinct channels, one for each sex. Josh gets all the agony of unfulfilled artistic ambition; Cornelia gets to wonder whether she should have had a baby by now.
Both partners distrust the “baby cult,” and put the question on ice by taking up with a couple fifteen years younger: a fan of Josh’s films (played by Adam Driver, now on track to play every “feckless hipster in North Brooklyn” role for the next ten years) and his wife (Amanda Seyfried, making the best of her material as always), who seems to exist in the same vague “helpmate-slash-love-interest” space as poor Cornelia. The oldsters learn the joys of collecting records, doing ayahuasca, and riding bikes. The youngs seem to be getting nothing out of the deal except someone to pick up the tab at restaurants, though their motivations become more complex—sinister, even—over time.
Smash cut to Younger, of which I read every page, so help me God. From now on, when I want to revenge myself on my enemies, I’ll buy them a copy. Pamela Satran’s writing should not be read, but issued as a stern corrective. (Write this sentence one hundred times over on the chalkboard: “‘That jungle of pubic hair!’ she squealed. ‘It’s practically down to your knees!’”)
The “fun” begins when Alice (Liza, in the TV adaptation), a youthful-looking forty-four-year-old who’s taken two decades off work to raise her daughter, decides to pose as a twentysomething to land a creative-class job. Her younger coworker befriends her, takes her to Krav Maga, and is perhaps more vocal than necessary about the state of Alice’s pubic hair. Fresh off a divorce, Alice also starts a fling with a twenty-five-year-old who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Unaccountably, this character will not be played in the TV adaptation by Adam Driver.)
Younger’s total ignorance of the youth culture it’s supposedly exposing is almost touching: At one point, Alice attends a “rock show” where people are “grinding.” Her young lover’s uncanny ability to set an alarm on his phone causes her both fear and pleasure.
In the midst of all this wild, youthful iPhone usage, it’s Alice’s status as a mother that is meant to command our sympathy. She can teach irresponsible young women, like her friend, to cook. She demonstrates her superiority to the ferocious “feminists” she works with (one has written a book entitled Why Men Must Die) and to her “bitchy,” career-oriented boss with thoughts like, “My daughter, my motherhood, the most important thing in my life. I could never wish her out of existence.”
Being a mother is all that makes Alice an adult—in fact, it’s seemingly the only thing that makes her a person at all—and it’s what calls her back to acting her chronological age in the end. Likewise, in While We’re Young, once the fun of “adopting” college-aged children has palled, the characters demonstrate their acceptance of maturity with . . . well, I know how much people hate spoilers, but let’s just say that pretty much the first and only appearance of a person of color in this particular Baumbach movie is a picture of a Haitian baby that someone has adopted.
Parenthood, in these stories, is put forth as the only way of acting your age. “Have a baby or be a baby” is the unspoken directive. And yet in these and other Coming-of-Middle-Age comedies, parenting seems less like a choice and more like a giant shrug: The characters have exhausted every other option, it seems, so why not a baby? That’s what people do, right?
Babies are wonderful, and it’s great when people have them; if people stop having babies, there will be no one to attend to me in the nursing home. Yet the question of how I am to get from youth to the nursing home, and how I might occupy my time in the intervening years, seems to have only one answer as far as the Coming-of-Middle-Age comedy is concerned: I will flail around, get self-absorbed (well, more so), question the meaning of life, and feel increasingly terrorized by the youths and their mysterious pastimes. And then, as a reward for my struggles, a small human will fly out of my uterus, thereby certifying me as officially mature. But adulthood—a messy confluence of chronological age and personal responsibility, a title that we confer in the hopes of conveying something like emotional maturity, trustworthiness, reliability, even (dare I say it?) wisdom—has got to be more complicated than that.