So wait, millennials aren't the enemy? From "The Intern" to "Grandma," the threat of looming intergenerational war has been greatly exaggerated

Four recent films show how young, old and in-between might not get each other, but need each other more than ever

Published October 4, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

  (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

“Time passes. That’s for sure,” reads the pithy Eileen Myles epigram that launches "Grandma," Paul Weitz’s latest feature. Based on typical Hollywood fare, it could be hard to tell; unless one happens to be Meryl Streep or Richard Gere, life ends after 60, and if you happen to lack a Y chromosome it would seem to stop at least a decade earlier.

But some of this might be changing. "Grandma," starring Lily Tomlin, 75, and Nancy Meyers' "The Intern," with Robert De Niro, 72, are making serious box office buck, drawing in audiences a third their age. Even odder is that neither film pivots around the trials of getting older or the fruits of late coupledom—rather, both focus on the relationships between those of a certain age and those considerably younger, part of a handful of recent movies eschewing traditional plots to tackle the tensions between traditionalists, baby boomers, Generations X, Y and Z.

Why the shift? Perhaps the fact that now more than ever we are likely to have to deal with those much older and younger than ourselves. Partly due to rising longevity and falling retirement rates, in 2015, for the first time in history, all five generations could potentially share a workspace. For those of Generations X, Y and Z, delayed marriage and childbearing means that it’s not uncommon for a single 32-year-old to socialize with those five to 10 years older, to compete for internships with applicants fresh out of college. We are entering an age of the pan-generational mashup, and we need to learn how to listen.

Widely lauded for cynical character-driven dramas ("The Squid and the Whale," "Greenberg"), Noah Baumbach released two films in 2015 that seem cheery by comparison, both inviting anyone under 50 to sort out what they have in common. In "While We’re Young," Gen Xers Josh and Cornelia—played by Ben Stiller, 49, and Naomi Watts, 47—befriend millennial hipster couple Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver, 31, and Amanda Seyfried, 29. All childless, the four bike across Brooklyn, frequent bougie artisanal restaurants and puke into shared ayahuasca buckets. This cozy cultural crochet joining X and Y eventually unravels—Jamie and Darby aren’t nearly as earnest or ebullient as they seemed, and Josh and Cornelia ultimately opt to become parents—but both couples plainly gain more than they lose in the process.

"Mistress America," Baumbach’s late summer comedy, studies the bond between 30-year old Brooke, played by the unsinkable Greta Gerwig, and Tracy, her soon-to-be stepsister, a college first-year played by Lola Kirke. Brooke and Tracy go dancing, attend spinning class, visit bars that proffer complimentary hot dogs. The climax of the film follows a road trip from Manhattan to suburban Connecticut to beg Brooke’s married ex-fiancé (an amusing Michael Chernus) for a serious loan. In a hatchback packed with college kids and one feckless millennial, the transition from youthful insouciance to settled-down banality couldn’t be more explicit. Inevitably, Brooke and Lola “break up” as friends, and just as inevitably, they get back together, in the film’s final scene sharing Thanksgiving dinner in an East Village diner. Tracy boosts Brooke’s flagging confidence as a dreamer who hasn’t gotten her start yet, and Brooke grants self-conscious Tracy a sense of her own distinct appeal. As said in one of the film’s most memorable voice-overs, “Her beauty was that rare kind that made you want to look more like yourself and not like her."

"Grandma" and "The Intern" feature an even broader age range—from 5 to 75—poking holes in presumptions of what it means to get old, feel young or (not so) simply grow up. In "Grandma," a kind of “every-wave” feminism unites Elle, an unorthodox matriarch played by Tomlin, her daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), and teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) when facing an unplanned pregnancy. As Ben, “senior intern” to CEO Jules, played by Anne Hathaway, De Niro becomes a grandfatherly confidant—to his boss, office colleagues and practically everyone else with whom he comes into contact. Though differing markedly in tone, style and budget, both films suggest that getting older can lead to a sense of fearlessness and resilience that the young are missing out on.

Many have dubbed "Grandma" another “abortion film,” in the spirit of "Obvious Child," but the film’s real focus is on the clashes between the generations already born and blundering. “The gravity of the choice doesn’t elude us,” said Tomlin in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival—and in this film the gravity of the choice brings three generations of women together, quite literally, in a clinic waiting room. At the film’s start, Elle has just broken up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (played by a very believable Judy Greer), and is soon after visited by her panicked granddaughter. The drama unfolds over the course of a single day, and throughout Tomlin wears her own clothing and drives her own 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer. It’s not surprising that Weitz wrote the role with only Tomlin in mind.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine "The Intern" with anyone but De Niro, who tempers predictable gentle paternalism with a progressive take on working moms and the glass ceiling in a way that seems surprisingly sincere. But it’s harder to take the cross-generational gusto seriously in a context of unlimited fiscal resources (or springy safety nets) for every character involved. Ben’s enviable Brookyn pad sports a kitchen island and walk-in closet. He’s interning not because he needs the money (it’s never even clarified that he’s paid at all) but because, as confessed in voice-over at the beginning of the film, “There’s a hole in my life, and I need to fill it.” In ways, "The Intern" seems to suggest that the remedy to senior depression is simply to “put ‘em to work!” even if that work involves menial labor and instantaneous deference to employers decades younger than you.

"Grandma" is less utopian about the state of the economy, as Elle’s financial hardships leave her with a ramshackle L.A. bungalow and little else to live on (a mobile of cut-up credit cards twirls above her patio). Reminiscent of the 40 percent of American baby boomers with nothing saved for retirement, Elle’s hard up for cash, and the ensuing hunt for $600 prompts many of the film’s funniest moments: haggling over the value of first-edition feminist tomes at a womyn’s coffee shop, stealing weed from Sage’s boyfriend only to offer it for a price to an old flame (a wizened Sam Elliott).

But Weitz doesn’t shy from the real anguish experienced by a woman at 70. Elle mourns the loss of her life partner, Violet, who has died a year earlier; she rues the literary margins at which her poetry has been cast; she breaks down at the thought of losing Olivia, coldly dubbing her a “footnote” to her life before bawling in the shower alone. It is for this reason—Elle’s very raw and tangible pain—that her undaunted solitary sojourn away from the camera during the film’s final scene turns out so deeply moving.

By contrast, loss occasions only levity in Meyers’ film—a funeral home becomes a spot for a quirky first date between Ben and the office masseuse (a sultry Renee Russo), its innocuous petal-pink walls matched by the petal-pink cheeks of the affluent dearly beloved. Ben’s daily pill regimen suggests that he may have health troubles, but the brief scene in which his blood pressure seems to rocket is played more for laughs than concern. But then again, it’s a Nancy Meyers film; while "Grandma" leaves behind the high of a hand-crafted cocktail (something strong, a little bitter, with a cherry at the bottom), "The Intern" bestows the lingering headache of too many cheap Cosmos (sips syncopated to a soaring string accompaniment).

There are currently more than 100 million adults in the United States over the age of 50, and until this year, baby boomers outnumbered every other generation in the United States. Generation X, the “neglected middle child,” has been compared to a “low-slung, straight-line bridge between two noisy behemoths,” by Paul Taylor, author of "The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown." Millennials and Generation Z seize most current media attention, but often not in a good way, often derided for their detachment from organized religion, dependence on social media, or even inability to form enduring romantic bonds.

Baumbach’s recent features engage these subtler gulfs in generational values—how, despite any shared zest for craft beer or Bikram yoga, smaller age differences can be a beast to breach in daily life; when we speak of intergenerational conflicts, we rarely discuss those between people who aren't so far apart in years that one could be the other’s parent or child. "The Intern" and "Grandma" take a more obvious route, pairing septuagenarians with those decades younger, but thankfully resist full-blown nostalgia for the good old days in which their heroes came of age.

And for each of these cases, there is something to be said for a Hollywood film that shows that there is life after 40—and before 20, and even past 70!—that age may be a matter of fact, yet never the object of pity.

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By Eileen G'Sell

Eileen G'Sell's cultural criticism and poetry have been featured in Flavorpill, Belt Magazine, DIAGRAM, the Boston Review, and Conduit, among other publications. She is Film & Media editor at The Rumpus and she teaches writing, film, and poetry at Washington University in St. Louis.

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