It's Father's Day today, but dads seem to be going through a bit of a crisis at the moment. Here they are falling out on Bear Grylls' Island, or campaigning about inequality of pay (this from the male cleaners, plumbers and carpenters at the University of Wales, Trinity St David, who discovered that they earned around £4,000 less than female colleagues). Even if they are not thus compromised, masculine icons are either suddenly alarmingly fragile (Harrison Ford), threatening (Conchita), or escaping from it all into the Amazon (Becks). So here is a new film, Downhill, which depicts Mid-Life Bloke as a phenomenon crammed with enough angst to warrant quite a lot of therapy.
Made and funded by a bunch of fiftysomething chaps, Downhill is a dystopian buddy movie which follows four unfit men with bad hair, big boots and backpacks on the epic Coast to Coast Walk devised by the fellwalker Alfred Wainwright. Through miserable weather, the quartet struggle along 192 miles of country paths, staying in grim pubs, arguing, trying to chat up young women, and occasionally vomiting. They don't get on, they don't have fun, they don't bond, they don't have sex with anyone on the way. It is a feelbad movie. The film's director of photography Alex Melman, 50, a father of two, lovely wife, nice house in London, no health problems, good BMI, GSOH (but even so, in crisis), tries to explain why he and his friends had to make this film. "At an animal level, it's the repression of biology meeting your mortality. Your libido is still there, but you are beginning to stare death in the face. Your parents are ageing and you suddenly realise this might be the last chance for you to sow your oats. This is as good as it is going to get."
In fairness to Melman, it all used to be easier. The deal went thus. Work until you were about 60, then gracefully sink into grey hair, obesity and the armchair. Whereas these days, what with having kids later, needy parents still alive, giant mortgages, and those darned copies of Men's Health looming in the newsagent's, there is more to worry over. No wonder the market for cycling races in the Alps is booming. And that's before we get on to the drinking (too much) and the sex too little).
You can't look old, and you certainly can't act it. "Elders used to be celebrated," says Melman. "Now, experience counts for nothing. It is not valued. If they made, say, Jaws, today, they would cast three 25- to 30-year-old buff guys who look great."
As they progressed, it became clear to the filmmakers that their project, planned as a comedy, was uncovering some dark truths in an unfulfilled market. Their own. "Hollywood thinks the mid-life crisis begins and ends at 40," says co-producer Benji Howell, 51. "We felt the 50s was a constituency that the film world just doesn't speak to."
Indeed, if regarded at all, the fifty-something male is usually seen as a bit of a joke. From Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson, with a dash of Daddy Pig, the stereotype is overweight, comically unheroic and cartoonish. In the Father's Day merchandise this weekend, the only respite from Homer is the silver fox CEO type (usually played by Bill Nighy or that Clooney fellow). There are some great male midlife crisis movies out there, from Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer, to Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, but both feature heroes who are anything but Everyman. "We wanted four people who were not CEOs," says Melman. "Ordinary men who are the breadwinners, but who are terrified of failing." Failure. Against a soundtrack of everyone laughing at you. Led by Peppa Pig. Is this what the life of a fiftysomething man at the moment comprises?
Attendant demons in the film include booze, both friend and foe, anxieties over paying the mortgage and sexuality – homosexuality, promiscuity, monogamy, you name it. One of the most alarming things is that there is next to no resolution at the end. Everyone just carries on. This is a very blokeish thing, I am told. While women ("you are another breed") are happy to work through situations, middle-aged men rarely do. It really is a tendency to Keep Buggering On, and don't forget to pay the mortgage as you go.
It might be an idea if the dads who receive our hugs and kisses today took a good look at how their partners do it. I've had four children. Which meant four periods of enforced abstinence from work. Not all that much – I only took three months each time, but time spent away from the coal face, plus the dimension of an extremely needy being, namely a new baby, makes you step back and reassess. It is a very good discipline. Most fathers, bar the tiny minority who take full paternity leave, never have this resource. They just keep going on, and on, for decades.
Then there is the question of ageing. It's socially acceptable for women to cheat the clock; we dye, inject, subtract and plump up to look as young as we feel. Whereas men dyeing their hair are laughed at (Paul McCartney) and those trying other techniques (follicular transplants, anyone?) are pitied.
Women are not expected, always, to be the breadwinner. Many are; but it's OK if you aren't. Dads, however, know what is expected of them financially. They are expected to keep calm and, well, you know the rest. Women can drink Diet Coke at parties with impunity; men are expected to keep drinking. It's not manly to opt for Schloer. Women are allowed – encouraged, even – to embrace lesbianism or bisexuality without fear of reprimand; a recent survey of women's sexual attitudes revealed a huge increase in what was once regarded as transgressive behaviour. Whereas the older man toys with homosexuality at his peril.
Maybe Father's Day should be a clarion call for us to cut our blokes some slack, adjust the cultural barrier that stops men from seeking help, understand a bit more about the anxieties running through their minds, and above all, stop making those silly TV ads where the woman rushes around like Superwoman, rolling her eyes at the foolishness of her partner.
'Downhill' is at selected cinemas across the country and in DVD and digital platforms from 16 JuneReuse content