This Is 40: midlife crises in films

As Judd Apatow's new movie, This Is 40, shines a spotlight on middle-aged angst, Arifa Akbar, also at that awkward age, wonders why cinema thinks it's such a big deal

I threw a party for my 39th birthday that pulled out all the stops. I found a fancy venue, hired a DJ, paid for overpriced finger-food and got myself an elaborate, Bollywood-themed pink-and-gold costume.

The party was fabulous but it was over before I knew it, and I was left hailing a cab on an empty street in central London in the early hours of the morning, looking not-so-fabulous in a sequined turban. I cried in the taxi that took me home because it had all come to an end far too quickly.

I was sad because the party was over in more ways than one. That moment marked, to some degree, the end of a certain phase of youth and for that whole year, I panicked about the prospect of hitting 40. Perhaps these were the very rumblings of that dreadful existential crisis that is supposed to set off as we inch towards the mid-life point, I thought.

But when I actually turned 40 in August, a cloud lifted and I spent a perfectly pleasant day at London Zoo. There were no tears and no sudden urges to flee my 40-year-old life and embark on a second, hare-brained kind of youth that I had seen enacted countless times on film.

All remained calm, at least until other 40-year-olds around me starting flipping out. Those having the biggest wobbles were the ones with husbands and kids, just like the married couple in This is 40, a "coming-of-middle-age" drama written and directed by the American film-maker Judd Apatow. The film's UK release is on Valentine's day (14 February).

A spin-off sequel to his 2007 comedy, Knocked Up, it stars Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, and his two daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow. Mann stars alongside Paul Rudd as one part of a married couple, both turning 40 and finding themselves in their own quiet states of meltdown as they hit this landmark moment in middle-age.

Both, in their own ways, temporarily lose the plot, giving up smoking, abstaining from cupcakes, taking up exercise, reappraising themselves and their marriage with growing restlessness – all the usual tropes – in the hope of bringing a youthful passion back into their lives.

On the face of it, Apatow's idea is a dated one. Contemporary life has taken the melodrama out of turning 40 – we are living longer and 40 is hardly regarded as "old". Even so, it remains a freighted number and still the symbolic age that denotes the crisis moment, at which you either seek to escape the trap of your life, or take an inner audit and decide it's not all that bad.

This audit is, I think, what left my married friends so discontented. Their domestic complaints had a dreadful sense of comedy about them, perhaps because they were reminiscent of the crises I had often seen on film. One wished she wasn't saddled with two kids and a husband so that she could go white-water rafting, because she had seen an ex-boyfriend doing it on Facebook. Another friend I hadn't spoken to for 15 years emailed me out of the blue. He told me he was married with two kids and lived in a house by the sea. His siblings had children too and his parents were still healthy, he said. His enthusiasm tailed off – his commute took him four hours each day and his job was drudgery.

Even a businessman I met on a plane spent the entire flight describing his 38-year-old wife who had run off with her gym instructor. She's having a "mid-life crisis" he reflected, before he got off the plane and kissed his young Moroccan girlfriend who couldn't speak a word of English. Your wife isn't the only one, I thought.

Until it blew up around me, I thought this kind of mid-life crisis was nothing more than the stuff of marital-angst fiction found in the pages of John Updike's Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom series and in films such as John Cassavetes' Husbands (three middle-aged, middle-class men falling-apart) and Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, in which a couple can no longer bear the routine tedium of married life. Their separation, and intermittent sexual encounters, refresh their passion for each other.

But Apatow's contemporary story of mid-life crisis is not a universal one as it claims to be. Set in the here and now, it does not cover the breadth of experience for those increasing numbers of unmarried 40-somethings. The film's trailer describes it as "everyone's story" but surely it talks only to those increasingly dwindling nuclear families. So husbands gossip about their wives – "I can't wait to meet my second wife. I hope she likes me better than this one", says one, while another talks of his fantasy of escape. But this is not 40 for me and many others like me. Perhaps the upcoming, third Bridget Jones film will fill the gap.

So does this mean that unattached 40-year-olds escape the mid-life malaise or merely that they have a different kind of breakdown from married people? I didn't feel the same claustrophobia as my married friends, though anxiety did take hold. And of course, the inner drama of mid-life does not just revolve around marital status. There is also the loss of youth and beauty to face up to in one's 40s which, however obliquely, points to the cold hard fact of our own mortality. Our 40s only give us the first glimpse of the physical transformation that is to come, the peeping grey hairs and emerging wrinkles that will eventually hail in a different phase of life, but they are enough to send some of us into a tailspin. Kevin Spacey's brooding husband Lester Burnham, in American Beauty, exemplifies this kind of angst. He is not unhappy in marriage but unhappy in the desperate pursuit of his youth even as it drains away. Pumping iron and ogling his daughter's high-school friend (Mena Suvari) are ways of tethering himself to the vestiges of youth he is intent on holding on to. As are Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her, but in a more whimsical way. The dark comedy revolves around two rivalrous women who drink a potion that promises eternal youth.

Some films have captured the single woman's drama at the age of 40, or if not 40 then the notional "mid-life crisis" point. The most uplifting outcomes of this crisis have featured single women who have set off on liberating journeys such as Shirley Valentine in her flight to the Greek island of her own sexual rediscovery, and Thelma and Louise who undertake the classic road movie quest to "find" themselves. The rediscovered joy in their lives is a counter-point to the unremitting misery of Updike's archetypal middle-aged man. While Harry Angstrom drives around in circles only to plod back to his unfulfilling family life, Thelma and Louise hit the highway and have a ball. If I had to have a mid-life crisis, this is the one I'd choose.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home