No one enters a marriage thinking to themselves: “Well, I’ll give this a shot, but the next time I do this I’ll probably be better at it.” Marriage is generally viewed by the couple as a one-shot deal. It’s not like golf: the more rounds you do, the better you get at it. You find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. End of story.
But what if that’s not the end of the story? As many people know only too well, marriages fail, and at a pretty regular rate. So there you are in the middle of your life, starting over. After the initial shock wears off and your life settles into a routine that’s different from before but still sort of the same, the thought starts to occur to you that it would be nice to not be alone. It would be nice to have a person.
The romance that goes with that second time around is a different kind of love story. The principal characters are not beautiful 20-somethings with lives full of promise ahead of them. The principals are middle-aged, often a bit worn down by life, carrying their own disappointments and failings quite clearly around in their heads.
But guess what? While maybe not as sexy, these middle-age romance stories are richer and more interesting stories for exactly these reasons. The person who fails and tries again is always more interesting than the person who tries and succeeds. We’re going to look at my favorite movies that deal with this topic—all rich, wonderful, realistic, and, as a result, even more romantic.
This is one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time because, while the story is charming, the film contains two astonishing performances no one really saw coming. Throughout the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was the Hollywood male sex symbol, know for his manly man, good-old-boy performances in movies such as Deliverance (1972), The Longest Yard (1974), and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Going completely against type, Reynolds plays a neurotic writer for an airline magazine who lives in Boston. He even has a panic attack in the mattress section of a department store.
Even better than Reynolds is an utterly brilliant Candice Bergen as his ex-wife. Bergen turns in one of the best comic performances in the last half-century of film here, playing an obnoxiously self-centered singer/songwriter who can neither sign nor write good songs. Jill Clayburgh is beguiling as the meek and lonely woman who Reynolds grudgingly falls in love with. If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, it is just as fresh, funny, and delightful as when it opened 40 years ago. Rent it.
In the history of our nation, only two men have entered the White House as bachelors. First, there was James Buchanan (1857-1861), who was probably gay, and Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and then 1893-1897), who was not. Cleveland got married while in office to a woman who was 27 years his junior. (Fun fact: the Baby Ruth candy bar was not named for Babe Ruth, but for Cleveland’s oldest of five children, Ruth.) This movie poses the question: what happens when the President decides to date? How does that work?
Directing a script by noted screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Rob Reiner puts together a delightful romantic movie about a widowed single dad (Michael Douglas) dating an exceptionally attractive and smart middle-aged woman (Annette Bening)—he is the most powerful man in the world and she is a lobbyist who isn’t particularly pleased with his politics. This movie is a textbook example of how to breathe extraordinary life into a standard premise. It’s fresh at every turn.
This movie has a couple of elements that should, under reasonable circumstances, make me dislike it.
1) Ugly and unpleasant older man wins the heart of a beautiful younger woman.
2) Helen Hunt.
And yet… I loved it and still do. Jack Nicholson is perfect as an ugly, unpleasant older man who ends up transforming himself and falling in love. Helen Hunt is completely believable and appealing as a struggling waitress and single mother to a chronically-ill son. Greg Kinnear and Cuba Gooding, Jr. turn in outstanding supporting performances as well. This is an exceptionally well-acted film, a fact that I attribute almost entirely to James Brooks’ masterful direction. The acting here is so real, compassionate, and close to the bone that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Bravo!
This is my favorite Nancy Meyers movie. Normally, that is the kind of compliment that could be construed as “damning with faint praise” because normally I’m not a big fan of her movies. They tend to be about upper-middle-class or rich white people whose problems seem trivial and self-made. In this movie, for instance, Meryl Streep plays a divorced mom who lives in an enormous house in expensive Santa Barbara that she is expanding, all while running…a bakery? On what planet would this realistically happen?
But this movie I actually really like, mainly due to a fantastic performance by Alec Baldwin, as Streep’s ex-husband. While being politely and chastely wooed by her architect (Steve Martin), Streep falls back into an affair with a feral and lusty Baldwin, who is miserable in his second marriage to a much younger hottie (Lake Bell). You know what? It IS complicated. Baldwin makes this somewhat ludicrous premise completely work. There are not many movies where Meryl Streep has the lead in the movie and is outshined by her co-star. This is one of those cases, and it totally works.
Seven completely unrelated British pensioners independently decide to move into a beautiful luxury retirement complex where their pensions will go further and the weather is better. One small problem with this genius scheme: the retirement complex is actually a shabby, rundown hotel in India where nothing works quite right. The unlikely love stories that unfold here are utterly winning and inspiring. A fantastic cast as well: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel as the relentlessly optimistic and overwhelmed manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “Everything will be alright in the end. And if it isn’t alright, then it is not the end.” One of the best lines ever in a movie. It is that spirit that imbues this film and makes it relentlessly watchable.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.