Given its overwhelmingly young audience demographic, it’s interesting to see what Hollywood does when it gets its hands on the unsettling themes of old age. Evidence suggests policy imperatives of avoidance and, where that’s not possible, cheerful reassurance. Kudos, then, to a pair of current films that—to borrow a metaphor from one of them—at least step up to the plate and take a swing at it.
Robert Lorenz’s Trouble with the Curve dissects the specter of professional obsolescence. Clint Eastwood stars as Gus Lobel, a baseball scout nearing the end of a long career. His usefulness impugned by young front-office hotshots who rely on computer analysis to evaluate prospects, Gus is sent to North Carolina to scout a cocky young slugger the team intends to make its first draft pick. Macular degeneration and glaucoma have put a blurry spot in the center of Gus’s vision; scared and angry, he’s hiding his problem from everyone else, including his daughter Mickey, a driven, perfectionist corporate lawyer. Aware that her father’s job and his pride both ride on the outcome of his scouting trip, Mickey takes a week off from her firm and joins him on the road.
At stake in Hope Springs isn’t professional obsolescence, but marital. Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep play Arnold and Kay, a couple whose thirty-one-year marriage has dissolved in mutual disaffection and zombie-like adaptation to routine. While Arnold is willing to sleepwalk through the rest of his life, Kay refuses, and drags him to a small town in Maine where a marital therapy guru, Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, doing his best to suppress his default subversive smirk), challenges them to relearn a long-forgotten intimacy.
In one way, the makers of these films don’t have to do much to explore the theme of aging beyond training their cameras on the faces of Tommy Lee Jones and Clint Eastwood. These actors, both strikingly handsome as younger men, now bear all the ravages of time’s handiwork. Jones’s face is mottled and swollen, and Eastwood’s skeletal visage frankly deathlike. Lavish closeups attest to the assaultive aspect of aging and how wantonly it wrecks all mortal beauty. This reality presents Hollywood a tricky problem. How to create a movie dark enough to convey Time’s relentlessness and our dread of physical mortality without simply appalling viewers? It’s all about us and the industry’s estimation of us; to borrow a line from a very different movie, Can we handle the truth?
Including the prickly truth of late-life concupiscence. While Trouble with the Curve remains chaste in this regard—it’s a Clint Eastwood movie, after all, and nothing marital may intrude (pop quiz: How many of Eastwood’s forty-five lead roles come with a live wife attached? Answer: one, in Space Cowboys)—Hope Springs seeks to confront marital sex earnestly. And occasionally the back-and-forth between Streep, Jones, and Carell touches on serious points of pain. When did you stop wanting to kiss me, to touch me? When did we stop being a source of joy for one another? The filmmakers deserve praise for raising the taboo topic of geriatric sexuality. Still, at every juncture where their exploration might venture into significant darkness, writer Vanessa Taylor and director David Frankel grab their scenario and characters and steer them back toward the sparkly pleasures of light comedy. Mixing Streep’s bashful willingness to submit to Dr. Feld’s ministrations with Jones’s curmudgeonly and vehement resistance, they trade rueful one-liners at every turn. “Does that feel good?” Streep asks, hopefully, when Arnold submits to being caressed by her in a bedtime exercise assigned by Dr. Feld. “Feels like you’re petting the dog,” he retorts.
It is enjoyable to watch Jones and Eastwood grump and grunt their way through these movies, and to hear in that clenched and monosyllabic grumpiness the abiding clash between therapeutic values (get it out, work it out) and a certain kind of American male stoicism. And so we study Jones’s morning plod through the house, briefcase in hand, to the same breakfast, morning after morning, wearing ruts in the floor. We enjoy the acerbic by-play between Eastwood’s character and his daughter, played with sassy, tough brio by Amy Adams. At one point, Eastwood, furiously resisting her attempt to help him unlock a motel room door, bursts out that he’s “not helpless,” and insists that when he gets to that point, “I’ll put a bullet in my head.” “That’s reassuring to hear,” she shoots back. Then there are comically geriatric variations on classic Eastwood tough-guy lines. “Get out of here,” he sneers at a barroom rowdy who makes a pass at his daughter, “before I have a heart attack trying to kill you.”
All of this is fine, as far as it goes. But it reveals that the makers of these movies have conceived the cinematic approach to old age as a stark choice between comedy and tragedy, and have opted for the former. In contrast, the best films on aging reviewed in these pages over the years—Autumn Spring, Footnote, Last Orders, Another Year—manage to perceive both comedy and tragedy and hold them together at once. (Is it any surprise that these are all imports, and that Europeans might deal more serenely with the reality of aging than we Americans, with our widespread horror of decrepitude?) There’s no escaping that tragedy inheres in the fact of being old. But comedy, a comedy of the gentlest and most forgiving sort, is there to be discovered in the various movements of acceptance, reconciliation, and most of all companionship that temper old age’s loneliness. This companionship is both personal (your friends, your children, your spouse) and universal: you are, after all, going the same way that billions and billions have gone before you. Such realities—the abiding solace of friendship, the endurance of love, and finally the acceptance of death itself—form a spiritual bulwark against despair, and convey to both characters and viewers alike a comic relief of the most profound sort.
To their credit, Trouble with the Curve and Hope Springs both portray old age’s tight knot of griefs and hurts, and give us male protagonists grimly ready to soldier on without untying it. We understand that behind the granite resistance of Jones’s and Eastwood’s characters lies an abyss of regret, and that to open up is to risk a terrifying plunge. This understanding gives both films a potential source of gravity, even majesty. But in both cases the filmmakers are willing to go only so far; afraid of their own material, they tiptoe up to the edge then scurry back to the safe contrivances and reassurances of Hollywood comedy. In both films, we hear the happy-ending machine being wound up from the start. Trouble with the Curve puts everything in the hopper, turns the crank, and resolves it all: not only Gus’s personal vindication, but Mickey’s career dilemma, her romantic reluctance, and the decades-old nub of alienation between father and daughter. In Hope Springs, all Arnold has to do is accept Dr. Feld’s wisdom, perform a few intimacy exercises with Kay, loosen up a little, and voilà—he emerges as a raging Lothario. And, judging from the movie’s closing scene, in which he weeps with joy at a celebration of his and Kay’s wedding vows, he’s gotten in touch with his feelings to boot.
If only things were this simple! But we know they aren’t. And thank goodness for that. Despite their flirtations with real life, these are feel-good movies, designed to turn us away from our don’t-go-there places rather than take us through them to the other side. This is understandable. Physical indignities, the waning of vigor and desire, the broadening view of oblivion: who doesn’t feel a shudder, confronting Time the Vandal? But the willingness to look away drastically limits what these films can accomplish, and spells the difference for us between merely feeling good and feeling uplifted. In the end, both leave us mired in platitude and panacea, as if just talking about our problems, just admitting them, will heal the grumbling and obdurate old man in all of us. Such sentimentalism sums up the essence of Hollywood. Untying a knot of human sorrow isn’t enough; it must be retied, with bows and bells.