Hollywood long ago traded in perfect Father Knows Best-style parents for the grungier Married with Children variety. Divorce was granted pride of place some time ago as well, in 1979’s Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer. But as dysfunctional as the parents of these shattered domestic idylls may have been, they still, if not smelled like roses, didn’t stink up the place either.
Recent films have begun giving older moms and pops especially a much rougher time. Viagra and increased longevity are partly to blame, as is Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. In this 2010 London-set comedy of ill manners, Anthony Hopkins’s sixtysomething husband and father parodies Allen himself by starting afresh with a twentysomething hottie (played by Lucy Punch), whom his sex pills give him at least the potential to satisfy.
Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 (2012) took Allen’s premise to its logical, more darkly comical conclusion, not with its midlife-crisising lead couple (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) but with their fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks), both of whom have started second families with young wives and children, the latter younger even than their first-family grandchildren.
Depicting the second-family syndrome wasn’t by itself astounding. The hit sitcom Modern Family (whose first season aired in 2009) pioneered the reflection of this sociological trend with none other than Married with Children alumnus Ed O’Neill, who upped the ante with Sofia Vergara’s much younger, immigrant Latina, with whom he has a son younger than his grandkids. O’Neill’s character, however, while still a bit rough around the edges, is not a bad egg and was politically correct enough to marry and procreate interracially. The second-family fathers in This Is 40 have less redemptive credentials.
Alienation of affection extends with them not only to their divorced first wives but also to their first-family children, of whom they either mooch off or see very little. In Lithgow’s case the sins are visited on the grandchildren as well, whose names he doesn’t know, and in Brooks’s case accrue to his own fertility-drug-induced second-family triplets, whom he can’t tell apart.
That the phenomenon is not solely comical, patriarchal, or Anglo-American is evidenced in two recent dramatic films: the French neo-noir Aliyah (Elie Wajeman, 2012) and the recently released U.S. indie What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel), an updating of the Henry James novel.
Although the dope-dealing son (Alex Raphaelson) in Aliyah (Hebrew for a diasporic Jew’s immigration to Israel) is no great shakes himself, he hardly deserves the cold shoulder his second-family father (Jean-Marie Winling) gives him when he tries to go clean and start his own new life in the Jewish homeland. What eponymous, five-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) comes to realize is that neither of her fiftyish parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) is worthy of the name. While they haven’t yet started a second family, these Me Generationers on steroids seem well on their way, when, after a messy break-up, they instantly wed much younger spouses and, for all intents and purposes, leave poor Maisie behind.
Maisie offers another clue, besides longer life and erection spans, to unwrapping the mystery inside the enigma of this anti-older-parent paradigm shift. Both Moore’s and Coogan’s characters—as their ages, appearances, and lifestyles attest—are stuck in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, a 1979 bestseller responding to the ’60s/’70s generation’s perceived self-centricity. Though Maisie’s overall sensibility suggests that its filmmakers are no friends of right-wingers who equate the demise of Western civilization with the rise of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll, the film similarly places much of the onus of irresponsibility on the counterculture’s unholy trinity.
Moore’s character is the stoner of the wayward parents, and both are aligned with the pop music business: she to the point of launching a rock-singing revival tour, he via retro long hair and perpetual cell-phone huckstering. Even the broken home’s décor exudes cheery “make love/not war” design, the irony of which (for the family and post-’70s society as a whole) couldn’t be bitterer.
Certainly the flower children’s failure to live up to—some would say outright betrayal of—their lofty ideals is ripe for critique—or co-optation, as in David Brooks’s literary fare-thee-well to Vietnam-era activism, Bobos in Paradise (2000). But why this renewed and increasingly vitriolic boomer bashing—from the left? Zeitgeist theory, boosted by a recent study of so-called Millennials’ Great Recession-prompted, Depression-era-infused return to frugality and modest living, offers an explanation. As does a “shoot the messenger” reflex stemming from the realization of the “diminished expectations” posited by Lasch, then-governor Jerry Brown, and President Jimmy Carter.
Whatever the reason, all is not lost for a generation that gave us love-ins and acid trips but also sit-ins, bra burnings, and Stonewall. A few other 2013 films—the pro-counterculture The Company You Keep, anti-fracking Promised Land, and eco-thriller The East—have launched a counter-trend of social conscience cinema. And even Maisie, in the end, gets it both ways. When the jilted little girl runs joyously off toward her much-anticipated boat ride (to New Hope?), her “forever young” alternative parents and “back to nature” makeshift home hint that the best of the boomer legacy has not all been left behind.
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, was published in early 2013.