A midlife crisis is roughly defined as a period of anxiety and disappointment reflecting on your past as you approach middle age. Those going through a midlife crisis are noted to act irrationally compared to their previous behaviour in a need to get out of a self-perceived rut. It has often been noted that no two people react to the dawning of maturity in the same manner, even if the cause of the anxiety is always the same.
In pop culture, the midlife crisis has become something of a cliche that has long past saturation point following the waves of American Beauty imitators at the turn of the millennium.
Midlife Crisis and The Movies
In real life, this is a complicated period which can become difficult to process emotionally. In the movies, it is always a maudlin, Sundance Festival friendly time in your life filled with quirky behaviour and a warm smattering of nostalgia for the way things were or could have been.
Ordinary World, the sophomore effort from writer/director Lee Kirk, doesn’t have any particularly novel insight into middle age. It possesses a narrative that manages to water down complex emotions into a neat three act structure that occurs over the course of one 24 hour period. It is charming and gives you characters with crises worth investing in, even though the predictability from the opening moments helps you know exactly how everything will resolve.
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong stars in the lead role as Perry, a former rockstar whose band went on indefinite hiatus ten years ago so he could start a family with his wife (Selma Blair). On his 40th birthday, his family have forgotten that it’s the big day, leaving him to tend to the same menial tasks that now define his existence: running house husband errands and working part time in the family owned DIY store.
Finding out it’s his 40th birthday, his brother (Chris Messina) gifts Perry $1,000 of company money to host himself a big blow out. He hires a presidential hotel suite and invites his former bandmates (led by Fred Armisen) round for a party, only to realise just how much times have changed and how they have steadfastly refused to mature and accept adult responsibility.
The story in Ordinary World is as old as narrative itself, primarily because a large portion of stories we consume are created by ageing white guys who wish to force-feed us the existential fears they face as they grow older. Everybody obsesses about what might have been and how it could have shaped their current, sub-par present, so the insights here aren’t exactly revolutionary.
If you were looking for a thesis on the human condition, presented in cinematic form, then you’d better look elsewhere. Ordinary World doesn’t have anything to say that you haven’t heard a million times before from other, similarly budgeted indie projects.
An Actor’s Director
Which isn’t to say the film is without charm, as Kirk ensures his screenplay is filled with characters so well rounded and (for the most part) likeable, you can’t help but find the somewhat contrived antics endearing. In an interview for Film Inquiry that ran earlier this week, Kirk claimed his directorial style is defined by giving his actors full reign to flesh out their performances, letting them tell the story through performance alone, with no aid from distracting cinematography or visual tricks to make him appear distinct as an auteur. There is no doubt that the movie is a resounding success when viewed like this.
The movie is anchored by Armstrong’s central performance. Although more cynically minded viewers will be sniffy towards his acting, he manages to disappear into the role and make you forget that he is one of the most internationally successful rock stars of the last quarter century.
Even though the character is a former musician, with plenty of songs on the soundtrack performed by Armstrong himself, he completely removes the showmanship that he’s known for with his band. He has the talent, but no sense of artistic fulfilment; he is defined by a quiet anxiety, manifesting itself in general clumsiness that often makes for a more physical performance than you would have ever imagined.
If there is a weak link in the strong ensemble, it is Fred Armisen as Perry’s former bandmate. This isn’t a fault of the performance, so much as the infuriating manner in which the character is written. He is unambiguously a dick, something which Armisen relishes portraying as the most cluelessly loathsome character in recent memory. The only problem is, he sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the likability of the rest of the film.
His actions never get excused by the screenplay and from the moment it becomes clear this character has no arc or narrative resolution that has a purpose to Perry’s journey, he becomes immensely unlikable. He’s just a dick for the sake of being a dick, which doesn’t highlight the vast differences between the two characters so much as it makes you question how on earth these two were friends in the first place. The fact Armisen is an accomplished comedic actor makes it seem like his behaviour towards Perry is supposed to be funny, when really it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Putting those grievances to one side, Ordinary World is charming in spite of its sheer predictability. Kirk has created a fairly formulaic character study, but at least he is focusing on characters that you very quickly learn to care about.
The end result is something that is every bit as ordinary as its title suggests, but that isn’t such a bad thing. When going through a turbulent period in life, surely it’s comforting to look at midlife crisis narratives and find some comfort in the formulaic nature, knowing that everything will be all right in the end?
Which musicians have made the best actors?
Ordinary World is released on VOD and in select theatres across the US on Friday October 14th.
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