It should surprise no one that on my flight back from Greece last week I watched a couple of movies that almost made me cry. That’s just how it goes in Matt World. For the record, the one that came closest to squeezing tears from my ducts was Where the Wild Things Are, the Dave Eggers–Spike Jonze adaptation of the beloved Maurice Sendak book.
Beloved by most people, that is. I remember reading it when I was little, but I don’t know that I loved it, not the way I grew attached to Sendak’s “Chicken Soup With Rice” series. Anyway, the film version adds a bit of backstory to Max, the rampaging child who flees home and discovers a land of friendly monsters and wild rumpuses; now he’s got no dad and a struggling mom and a big sister who’s more interested in hanging out with older boys than digging igloos with her kid brother. Apart from the kind of amazing special effects, the movie isn’t really all that great, meandering at times dully as Max learns that managing the social relations among the Wild Things is no fun.
But what the film gets right is Max. That is, he feels properly like a kid, thanks I guess to the script but also to actor Max Records, who’s got that volatile mix of unbridled imagination, vulnerability, explosive anger, and bravado that I remember feeling myself when I was 6 or 7. When a bunch of older kids accidentally crush his igloo, or when he goes to sleep under a pile of furry Wild Things, the sadness and delight he conveys is, well, authentic. It was almost enough to make me cry—almost.
The other movie didn’t come close to making me cry, but it did have something else in common with Where the Wild Things Are. The movie was Going the Distance—yes, the Drew Barrymore–Justin Long vehicle about a mid-20s couple trying to make a bicoastal long-distance relationship work. Maybe I connected with the movie because my wife and I have spent so much time and effort making our own long-distance relationship work, but what struck me more than that was the way the characters (she a struggling journalist, he a struggling A&R guy) spoke. It’s a small thing, but they sounded like us—sounded like me, Jean, and many other people of our age and social circle.
Or maybe that’s no small thing. For other recent and upcoming movies have the same thing going on. Bridesmaids, the new Kristen Wiig movie, features plenty of mid-30s characters who sound, you know, like urban people in their mid-30s: jokey, confused, ironic, sarcastic, fragmented, and often terrified of saying exactly what they mean or how they feel. In fact, this is probably the most salient trait of the whole Judd Apatow film world: you find it in Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin, and a bit in Date Night.
Moreover, it feels like there’s a whole slew of movies directed at the DadWagon audience these days. At Bridesmaids, we saw a preview for The Change-up, in which harried father-of-twins Jason Bateman and pussyhound Ryan Reynolds magically switch places, Freaky Friday-style. And director Alexander Payne has a new movie coming, The Descendants, in which George Clooney plays a nice dad who learns that his newly dead wife had been cheating on him. Expect the usual Payne mix of quirky humor and melancholy.
So, here’s my question: Is this a new thing? Two decades ago I don’t remember such movies being targeted at this mid-30s parental demographic. The closest thing to that was Parenthood, but that was definitely Boomer-oriented, and while it was funny back then, I don’t think its voice broke any new ground. It still sounded like old, big-money Hollywood. So is this new wave a conscious decision by filmmakers (and studios), or a natural consequence of my generation’s inevitable ascendancy?
Oh, and here’s the Descendants trailer: