"OK boomer” is so ubiquitous a retort that at this point, even mentioning it is enough to elicit an “OK boomer.” But I was born in 1962, the dusty end of the boom, so I’ve had a way-backseat view of the high jinks for as long as I’ve been alive, and hey, we mystify me, too. You would think the largest group of people in the history of the world to enter old age at the same time would have some important truths to impart, right? I’ve been waiting for the boomers to be honest about themselves in their films and television series, and I’m mostly still waiting.
(For the five of you who may not know about "OK boomer” – you must be boomers – here’s the Urban Dictionary definition: “When a baby boomer says some dumb [stuff] and you can’t even begin to explain why he’s wrong because that would be deconstructing decades of misinformation and ignorance so you just brush it off and say okay.”)
For the generations that followed, boomers destroyed the planet, bankrupted social security, seared a corrosive divide into politics, made the housing market unreachable, and now spend their twilight afternoons either shouting on the internet about Snowflakes or being startled to find that they, who were sure they were going to fix stuff, have instead ruined everything.
So are our pop-culture creators coming to an understanding that all the Botox injections in the world can’t mask one’s regrets and mistakes, that no matter how many spinning classes you crush, you can’t harden yourself against failure and loss? Are they conveying how that feels in their work?
Not so much. Instead of being bravely honest, many boomer shows and films focus on how we’re not loosening our grip on power, not admitting we’re aging. Will we be the first generation to grow older without growing wiser?
Look at the sitcom Carol’s Second Act (on Global), a star vehicle for Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond). She plays a teacher turned doctor, and every episode is exactly the same: The twentysomething interns think Carol is too old to do X, but boy, she sure shows them, she ends up doing X better than even her boss because she has more Life Experience. It might as well be called OK Carol. A genuinely wise person does not go around yammering about how much wisdom they have, just as a genuine artist doesn’t go on and on about how artistic they are. Wisdom is not hoarding or trumpeting your smarts; it’s paying it forward.
I had some hopes for Catherine the Great, the four-hour HBO miniseries starring Helen Mirren. But, yikes. Mirren is an impressive woman, Mirren is a force, but Mirren is 74, and all the digital softening in the world can’t make her believable in Episode 1 as the mother of a 15-year-old. You may argue that men have played younger for years, but I’ve always thought that was ludicrous, too. Catherine the Great is fake-good, a sumptuous wrapper around a stale candy. The way it keeps insisting, “Wow, we’re so enlightened to show Catherine being sexual at her age,” is insulting.
It feigns wisdom: “When I was young, I dreamed of freedom,” Catherine says in the final episode. “But as you get older, your choices narrow.” Fine so far. But then she adds, “So instead, I gave us an empire.” Tooting one’s own horn kind of drowns out the life lesson. So does having Catherine’s much-younger lover insist, “I’m never conscious of your age. You just are. You’re at the centre of things. You’re young. You always will be.” OK Catherine writers.
On the other hand, Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman (opened in selected theatres Nov. 8, on Netflix on Nov. 27), is a moving exploration of aging and rue. He opens with a gut punch for his fans: He recreates the famous entering-the-nightclub pan from Goodfellas – only this time, he’s entering an old age home. Instead of gliding through the kitchen to burst out the stage door, he takes us down carpeted hallways past walkers, wheelchairs and people dying alone alone alone.
Scorsese and writer Steven Zaillian turn this true story of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), his steadfast lieutenant Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and the mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, headed for an Oscar) into a three-hour-plus rumination that in the midst of life, we are in death. (Most every mook is introduced with a freeze-frame explaining the circumstances of his demise.) The flashback scenes employ digital de-aging, and at first they are off-putting – we know what DeNiro looked like when he was young, and it wasn’t this. But eventually, you overlook them, because the glimpses of the past make the present more poignant.
Scene after scene speaks to the miseries of getting older-not-wiser, complete with pillboxes, canes and yellowed photos of family members who no longer speak to each other. Zaillian understands that the line “You don’t know how fast time goes until you get there” is both true and whiny, an attempt to justify selfishness. The moment near the end, when DeNiro asks his daughter, “Can I do anything now to make it up to anybody?” and she weeps at his too-little-too-lateness, is an “OK boomer” elevated to Shakespeare-level sadness.
On a lighter note, Bette Midler and Judith Light do sashay very satisfyingly into the final episode of The Politician (Netflix) to show the youngsters what’s what. And every woman over 40 is singing hosannas to the scene in Fleabag Season 2 (Amazon Prime) where Kristen Scott Thomas delivers a kick-ass speech about menopause while downing a martini. (I want her line reading of “I’m 58” to be my ringtone.)
But I revere even more the second half of that scene, where Scott Thomas admits to Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) that she misses flirting. “There’s nothing more exciting than a roomful of people,” she says.
Except most people are rotten, Fleabag counters.
“Look at me,” Scott Thomas says. “Listen to me. People are all we’ve got.”
Not a new idea, but an excellent argument for why 58 is wiser than 33. Waller-Bridge then uncovers another truth. Fleabag propositions Scott Thomas, and Scott Thomas turns her away. “Why?” Fleabag asks.
“Honestly? I can’t be assed [bothered],” Scott Thomas replies. She’s been here before; she can see it all unfolding, from the machinations of new sex to the inevitable heartbreak, and she opts to go home instead. We need people, but sometimes they’re a lot of work.
To me, one movie about aging gets every bit of it right: Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodovar’s autobiographical portrait of a filmmaker (Antonio Banderas) who finally confronts what he’s been running away from in himself. Banderas, never better, plays him as needy, egomaniacal and magnificently human. In an interview with The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor, Banderas said, “I told Pedro, ‘We are getting older. There is only space for truth in our lives.’”
Apparently Almodovar listened. His movie shows us that we are the things we’ve done, yes – but we’re also the things we wish we’d done. You’re not okay, boomer. But that’s okay.
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