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.

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