Old Person-Core in Film: 'The Intern,' 'Five Flights Up,' Judi Dench and Beyond

Five modern classics of that elusive genre of film in which mortality lurks in the background, smiling.


Celebrated writer and director Nancy Meyers secured another box office triumph last week with the Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway vehicle The Intern; currently, it’s the second highest grossing film in the country. The film, which traces the unusual friendship between young fashion CEO Hathaway and DeNiro — her septuagenarian widower of an intern — feels par for the course for Meyers, who has become one of the most successful female directors of all time by making offbeat dramedies of this general stripe. She has hits What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, and It’s Complicated under her belt (not to mention the Lohan reboot of The Parent Trap). Meyers’ gift is tapping into the flights of fancy and existential hangups of old age, and she sells unlikely stories about the near-elderly falling into comically odd or inconvenient friendships or romances.

The tropes of Meyers’ films have become commonplace in a certain, hard-to-pinpoint substratum of film: spore-like outgrowths from the thematic material of As Good As It Gets and On Golden Pond. To be blunt, this is a type of film catered, fundamentally, to the sensibilities of the modern elderly person. There are a wealth of these films produced in our day and age, most of which do quite well commercially; like horror films, they’ve carved out their sustainable niche in the industry. Most of these movies go under the radar with film enthusiasts, and are treated as something of a punchline by critics.

Hathaway and Deniro in 'The Intern'


But cynical and cursory assessments miss the unique oddity of many of the films in this loosely-defined genre, which I would like to hereby dub “old person-core.” Many of these movies have the skewed charm that makes a good cult film — or even an overtly experimental one — and should not be swept under the carpet. Old person-core movies frequently have uniquely cyclical rhythms; often, there is little in the way of well-delineated conflict.

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in "It's Complicated"

All this feels by design, as if the filmmakers discovered something else the rest of us haven’t about how a certain type of middle-aged and elderly person wants their films shaped. Were there focus groups involved? These are films which, either literally or more metaphysically, feature their protagonists moving from fearing mortality toward being at peace with it.

To illustrate my point — and in celebration of the release of new old person-core signpost The Intern — I’ve chosen five modern, particularly bizarre examples of the genre which deserve to be distinguished somewhere.

‘Five Flights Up’ (2014)

Last year was a surprisingly fruitful year for old person-core: There is no more daring exploration of the avant-gardely banal in the genre than the Morgan Freeman/Diane Keaton vehicle Five Flights Up. The work of the screenwriter behind rough gems such as My Father the Hero and Krippendorf’s Tribe, the narrative focuses on Alex (Freeman), a painter, and his wife Ruth (Keaton), who are debating selling the apartment they bought long ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, now worth millions. Part of the reasoning? They are getting too old to not be living on the first floor.

The basic trajectory of the film: they decide to sell their apartment, but then eventually — because young people are rude — they decide to stay in the apartment after all. A subplot: It seems like their dog is going to die, but then she’s okay because they shell out for an expensive operation. That’s it. Oh yeah, their high-powered young(er)-professional realtor of a niece, Cynthia Nixon (as in Miranda from Sex in the City) is overbearing, just like most young people, even though she means well. There are plenty of flashbacks of Freeman and Keaton being better young people than today’s young people.

The implication: we’re gonna go out like we came in — living in Williamsburg.

‘Get Low’ (2009)

This is a pretty daring project, in that the blanket pitch seems to have been: Robert Duvall grunting. This is one of those misanthropic old man movies — of which Something’s Gotta Give and About Schmidt alike would reasonably fit — but it’s not quite your average Scrooge story. The story focuses on a Grizzly Adams-ed out Duvall — the mysterious recluse Felix Bush — emerging from his woodland hermitage to coordinate a funeral “party” for himself, while he’s still alive.

It’s pretty unclear what we are supposed to care about in Get Low, or even what is going on, until the end, when the normally monosyllabic Felix wiles out with a lengthy explanatory monologue detailing his obscure motivations throughout the movie with a ludicrously tragic story. We’re supposed to care, but the movie makes it impossible. Duvall introduces a drama starring at least three characters we’ve never heard of before in a scramble to hurriedly make up for the listlessness of the rest of the film. As he struggles to talk, we struggle to listen. Bill Murray — in one of his strangest old-man roles next to Hyde Park on Hudson — and Sissy Spacek stand by, by this point rendered pointless as characters.

In old-person core, it’s standard for films to just sort of slow (or creak) to a halt, like the driver of the horse and buggy has called out “whoa!” and whipped the reins about twenty minutes out. The rest of these films is just the nag trotting gently toward the farmhouse. Get Low is one of these formless, ruminative works. The outline: Hermit wants to die at peace, and eventually dies at peace, with about 90 minutes of movie in between. When it’s over, the viewer wonders (like Felix): Where did the time go? And to what?

‘Ladies in Lavender’ (2004)

This is a whole different branch of old person-core, which we could reasonably just title “Judi Dench.” Other masterworks of the genre include Iris, Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. (Ladies in Lavender is actually the coveted two-fer: “Judi Dench/Maggie Smith.”) It meanders on, like a walk through a gently twisting path in a botanical garden: Two spouseless sisters find a shipwrecked concert violinist from Poland washed up on the shores near their seaside cottage. Yep, that’s our starting point. They form a joint-motherly kind of relationship with the handsome young man. Thanks to their nurturing, he finds success and love, but leaves them. They are sad, but happy for him.

So it goes: you love them and they leave the nest. Something every aging parent can relate to… and then, you can prepare… for the end… you’ve heard some beautiful music… brought something good into the world… movie…ends…just….like… li—

‘The Age of Adaline’ (2015)

Yes, this movie is reverse Benjamin Button with Blake Lively; the rumors are true. Underreported is the rare appearance of Harrison Ford in a classic old person-core role: the aging man wrestling with the memory of old loves. What if my life had gone a completely different direction? this type of character asks, tacitly, every second they are on-screen. Blake Lively plays Adaline, the 107-year-old woman who cannot age, and Ford the father of Adaline’s latest flame, who was her lover in another one of her past lives (Adaline must constantly change her identity so the government doesn’t come after her).

Adaline is old person-core not only because of Ford’s hilarious anti-acting and magnificent cragginess — look at this pic of him — but for being a movie so oppressively and one-dimensionally about mortality, full of flashbacks to wonderful Youth (don’t miss the incredible Han Solo-era Ford impression his younger self turns in). Adaline has a touch of totally braindead magical realism as well, the logic of which is explained in hilariously pseudo-scientific voiceovers.

The trajectory: Woman can’t age, then by accident, can age again, which means she will finally rest.

‘And So It Goes’ (2014)

Next to Meyers, there is no truer auteur of old person-core than Rob Reiner. The director spent his early career ping-ponging between hoary feel-good dramas and screwball comedies, and in later years, found a perfect way to combine these sensibilities while focusing on the demographic with which his vision best resonates: the elderly. Sure, he’s tried to appeal to teens (Flipped), newlyweds (Alex and Emma) and the middle-aged (The Story of Us) alike, but Reiner’s made no greater statement in the last twenty years than 2008’s The Bucket List, certainly one of the absolute pillars of old person-core. Since then, Reiner has begun to produce more outlandish offshoots of BL, with even more roughshod and perverse sensibilities. First, there was 2012’s Freeman-as-grumpy-old-man vehicle The Magic of Belle Isle and then last year’s Keaton-Douglas rom-com And So It Goes.

Wow, this is a weird film, and old person-core in the extreme: The film begins with Michael Douglas losing his breath while climbing a hill to visit the grave of his dead wife. Boom, we’re in. From there, it’s the weirdest Scrooge story you’ve ever seen, featuring Douglas the aging real-estate agent having a dalliance with his adversarial temporary neighbor — aging, widowed jazz singer Keaton — while trying to sell his mansion of a house before retirement, and take care of the daughter of his formerly heroin-addicted son. Keaton and Douglas bond obliquely over the losses they’ve experienced in life, and then have awkward sex (“I had a dog once that wouldn’t leave my crotch alone and it was way more romantic than this,” Keaton yells after an ungentlemanly attempt from Douglas).

There’s a weirdly casual darkness to this film that is made all the more unsettling by the bizarre late-period acting styles of Keaton and Douglas. With mannerisms exaggerated and neurotic to the point of seeming deliberately stylized — and a script which seems to have been written by an extraterrestrial with only a vague understand of human emotion — Keaton and Douglas sparring verbally with each other is by far the craziest part of this movie (not, say, Reiner as a toupee’d jazz pianist who says “as the kids say, ‘cray’”, the scene where Douglas’ granddaughter’s junkie mother almost dies on screen, or when Douglas comments disparagingly on a 10-year-old’s penis).

The trajectory, as always: to quote Dave Matthews and Ecclesiastes 8:15, “eat, drink and be merry,” for in five to ten years we die. And that’s fine.

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