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Jessica Biel, Noah Lomax and Gerard Butler in a scene from "Playing for Keeps." (Dale Robinette/AP)
Jessica Biel, Noah Lomax and Gerard Butler in a scene from "Playing for Keeps." (Dale Robinette/AP)

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The problem with movies about second chances in life Add to ...

In Playing for Keeps, this week’s lone Hollywood release, ex-soccer player George once enjoyed fame and fortune, then his career got ended by nothing more onerous than advancing age. What’s next? Well, what’s next for George is his second act, which turns out to be a lame and tepid romance comedy. But maybe the picture is bad for a good reason. Maybe the movie is far less important than the question it raises, one that harkens back to Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum: “There are no second acts in American life.” That’s always been highly debatable, but this isn’t: “There are no second acts in American movie life” – at least none worth watching.

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Nonsense, you might well reply. After all, the movies are filled with redemption stories and what is redemption but a second chance and thus a second act. Actually, no. A redemption tale is a single act with a happy ending. Casablanca is the classic example. Consider Bogie: He begins as a cynic, loses his business and the woman he loves, but ends as a redeemed man – morphing from isolated anti-hero to selfless patriot, heading out with Claude Rains to kick Nazi butt.

So the conclusion of a great film is the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” – and, yes, the beginning of Bogie’s second act which, of course, we don’t see. If we did, no doubt our redeemed hero would win the war, return home to open another successful club and perhaps even find mature love with a widowed Ingrid Bergman. That would be a second-act movie. It would also be a dreadfully boring movie.

Redemption stories, then, are rags-to-riches tales, either literally or, in Bogie’s case, morally. By contrast, second-act stories, since they assume an original success, are riches-to-riches tales, with some rags tossed into the middle.

But that’s a whole lot more cumbersome and much harder to dramatize, because a guaranteed journey from one peak to another is inherently predictable and unsatisfying. Speaking of which, sequels are faux second acts, where the next thing is really just a repetition of the first thing – Rocky forever punching his way back up to the top.

No wonder, then, that true second acts are rare in American movie life. Consequently, whenever movies do look for a second-act tale, they confine the search to where the requisite starting points, riches and fame, have some built-in sex appeal – the world of celebrity, especially sports and showbiz.

But there’s a danger here. If the athlete is still competing (Rocky), or the coach is still coaching (Hoosiers), or the general manager is still GM-ing (Moneyball), or the musician is still playing (Walk the Line), and he conquers his weakness or disreputable past or myopia or substance abuse to win again and sing again, then you just have another redemption tale.

So, to avoid this danger, movies are obliged to seek their second acts among retired athletes or faded stars. Here, like George our ex-soccer star in Playing for Keeps, their fall is without fault – age and time alone have robbed them of what they once did and can never duplicate. There’s nothing to redeem. What’s next, then? Since that’s a problem all of us eventually face, such stories have the potential to resonate and speak universal truths. But they don’t.

Instead, we get the likes of Kevin Costner’s ex-pitcher in The Upside of Anger; Jack Nicholson’s ex-astronaut in Terms of Endearment; Bette Davis’s ousted diva in All About Eve. Indeed, what links these pictures, and Playing for Keeps too, is that the characters in pursuit of a second act are all required to learn the same lesson. Costner hooks up with the widowed Joan Allen, Nicholson with the granny Shirley MacLaine, Davis returns to her steady-Eddie hubby and ol’ George heads back to his estranged wife. In short, with their heyday long gone, there’s no more fighting for glory but only for love – not the young love that our culture celebrates but the mature variety which, being mature, feels wise yet rather tepid, enduring yet somehow dull.

In that sense, second acts in American movies are sound and sensible conclusions that nevertheless play like a process of elimination, the Beatles’ emphatic “Love is all there is” mixed with Peggy Lee’s rhetorical “Is that all there is?” The epiphany carries the whiff of anti-climax, like a President who leaves the hurly-burly of office to become an avuncular statesman, or a billionaire who quits his risky business to take up philanthropy – commendable certainly, even vaguely inspiring, but definitely not exciting.

Maybe that’s the missing adjective and the dictum should read: “There are no exciting second acts in American movie life.” Think back to our hypothetical Bogie and Bergman, post-Casablanca, post-war, reunited Stateside for their sunset go-round. Once, in full bloom, they had Paris. Now, as time goes by and by and by, they just have each other. Once, in that shining moment, they played for high stakes. Now, in all the waning moments, they’re just playing for keeps.

 

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