Summer is supposed to be the silly season, when we turn off our brains in favor of fun and sensation. But instead, in every cinema, I see meditations on mortality.
The Top 5 box office earners to date are the expected mix of comic book and fantasy films – but look at the titles: Transformers: Age of Extinction. X-Men: Days of Future Past. Not cheery! Maleficent pokes at the ideas of doom and living death. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Godzilla, major characters die – and while in years past the heroes might have spun the world in reverse to bring them back, now they just grieve.
The comedies are much the same. Neighbors is about a couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) who wage war on the frat house next door because they fear getting old. Sex Tape is about a couple (Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel) who make a sex tape – because they fear getting old. In Tammy, life-threatening diabetes is a major plot point. And So It Goes is about a still-grieving widow
(Diane Keaton) who beds her obnoxious neighbour (Michael Douglas) for no reason I can see other than, this may be her last shot at sex, ever.
And then there’s Magic in the Moonlight. Writer/director Woody Allen has joked mordantly about death for his entire career, but he’s 78 now, and the jokes are less funny.
The plot – a psychic claims to commune with the dead – barely exists; it’s there only to let the characters voice Allen’s questions about Existence: Is there an afterlife of any kind, or a god worth praying to? If this life is all there is, can it possibly have any meaning? Allen has explored these issues in many (if not all) of his films, and this one is a tepid stab at them. But that itself is poignant: This man has thought this stuff through and written it down countless times. Yet he’s still struggling! He’s no closer, not one whit closer, to figuring anything out! That’s not funny, it’s terrifying.
Meanwhile, the No. 1 drama of the summer is The Fault in Our Stars, about two teenagers who are dying of cancer, who decide to fall in love even though they’re dying of cancer. Did I mention they’re dying? In the few moments I wasn’t sobbing audibly and/or blowing my nose, all I could hear around me were young women sobbing audibly and/or blowing their noses.
On HBO, things are just as bleak. My two favourite miniseries this summer are The Leftovers, based on the novel by Tom Perotta; and Sensitive Skin, written and directed by Don McKellar, based on the British miniseries of the same name. In the latter, an ex-model (Kim Cattrall) faces down aging and mortality. The series opens with her refilling a prescription for hormones – and that’s an upbeat moment. There are many moody shots of her gazing at her wrinkles, as everyone over 35 does (don’t lie, you know you do), and it should come as no surprise that a hospital crash cart makes an appearance.
The Leftovers is scarier, in a gnawing, beautifully low-key, anxious way: Residents of a small town struggle to cope three years after a traumatic event, when millions of people vanished – poof! – without explanation. Some think it was the Rapture, cults have sprung up, many want to move on with life, others want to actively stop people from moving on. Though the series doesn’t directly pose the big questions – it doesn’t do anything directly; it’s the most thrillingly ambiguous television I’ve ever seen – it forces you to ask them for yourself. Why bother doing anything if we’re all going to die? What happens when conversations with God go wrong?
The last two weeks of summer will bring more of this cheer to the multiplex. In About Alex, a self-conscious Big Chill for millennials, attractive friends gather after the suicide attempt of the title character (Jason Ritter, who looks more like his late father, John, every year). In If I Stay, Chloe Grace Moritz watches her loved ones from within a coma. The Giver is about a boy who’s entrusted with all knowledge of the world’s pain. Calvary is about a good priest (Brendan Gleeson, excellent) made to suffer for his sinning brethren. And The Expendables 3 boasts a lineup of every Not Dead Yet action star in Hollywood: Stallone, Statham, Banderas, Li, Snipes, Lundgren and Schwarzenegger, with Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford thrown in free. They might as well have called it Good Grief.
And in the brilliant The Trip To Italy – the hilarious and unexpectedly moving sequel to The Trip, which opened Friday in some cities – director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden continue their trademark frenemy riffing, but this time there’s a deeper well of feeling underneath, a persistent shiver of mortality. There are countless references, both subtle and not, to aging, to the loss of sexual power, to a search for meaning. There’s even a long scene in an ossuary filled with skulls. “Let’s get out of here,” Coogan cracks. “This place is depressing, I don’t know why.”
So what’s going on out there? Has the Internet and its 24-hour news cycle brought the world’s pain and chaos so close that we can’t avoid it even in our entertainment? That’s certainly the feeling I got watching A Most Wanted Man, a terrific, thuddingly sad thriller based on John LeCarre’s novel, about a German operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who’s trying to keep global terrorism in some kind of check, though he knows his efforts are in vain. (The fact that it’s Hoffman’s last great performance adds to the sorrow.)
Have we all just accepted that human carelessness has destroyed our planet, making movies like Into the Storm – a disaster epic about superstorms, which also opened yesterday – de rigueur now? I mean, check out IMDB’s description of Expedition to the End of the World, an upcoming documentary about polar exploration: “A grand and adventurous journey of discovery to the last white areas of the world map. But no matter how far we go and how hard we try to find answers, we ultimately meet ourselves and our own transience.” Come on! Et tu, documentary? Speaking of our transience, there is no better film, this summer or any, than the beautiful, shattering Boyhood, which captures on film some ordinary moments in the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he ages from six to 18. Though the story is fiction, the filming is a cinéma vérité tour de force: It was shot over 12 years with the same cast. It’s hard to explain what happened to me when I watched it.
The first jump, as Coltrane ages from six to seven, made me sit up. Of course, his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) age with him, and their changes, though more subtle, are equally powerful. With each successive year, the lump in my throat rose higher; by the end, my heart felt so swollen with love and loss that it was hard to breathe. It’s the greatest confluence of movie magic and real life I’ve seen. As the 18-year-old faded out, I felt a physical ache for the six-year-old I’d never see again – and isn’t that exactly the point?
At a key moment, Arquette’s character says, “I thought there would be more.” That knocked me so sideways I’m still dizzy. Because ultimately, that’s what all these movies, all these seekers of enlightenment at the bottom of a popcorn bag, are asking. Is there more? There must be more. No – this is the more. Who needs a shrink or a minister? Go buy a movie ticket.