The Fault In Our Stars


My wife refers to it as the “Trump 20,” a la the “Freshman 15,” referring to comfort eating and subsequent weight gain resulting from anxiety about change. So I get it.

We all say anxiety now, when in the past it would probably be stress or something similar, normal human stuff. Normal human stuff that’s been highlighted and emphasized and featured on morning happy-talk shows, complete with pharmaceutical and therapeutic answers.

Nothing new, of course. Big Pharma has been pushing for a long time, from Miltown to Valium to Ativan, useful answers to those who suffer chronically, problematic for the rest of us, who get stressed out but don’t really qualify. It’s hard not to think of a problem and expect an answer, not when our daily lives have been pathologized until every sleepless night becomes a disorder.

I had some anxiety Thursday night, not so easy to avoid. Heading for a class I’m taking at Seattle University, I left with plenty of time, not having been on the campus in a while and wanting to take my time. I had about 90 minutes to travel the 20-odd miles at rush hour.

Which left me, at around the one-hour mark, sitting on an off-ramp, 2 miles from the university. I could have walked from there and made it on time. Instead, I was 15 minutes late by the time I pulled into the parking garage.

It was the wrong parking garage, by the way, which did nothing for stress when I discovered that it would close 45 minutes later. I discovered this three hours later, which essentially pushed me over into an odd form of catatonia, too much stress for this guy, although it wasn’t a big deal (you could leave, just not enter to park).

It just came at the end of an anxious day, wandering an unfamiliar campus, looking for a mystery building, heading completely in the wrong direction, the directions I’d been given of no use when, duh, you park in the wrong garage.

I finally stopped a couple of students, asked for help, and got it, although I felt as though I were in a movie, a befuddled old guy amidst the kids. “It’s far away,” one of these students said, concerned, apparently, that I’d keel over before I covered that half-mile or so.

After class, too, when we went to a college hang-out for beer and food, invading the space of students, I felt it. The four people I was with are all intimately involved with college life, three of them working for universities and the fourth with a sparkling new doctorate, so it wasn’t just my lack of interest in beer. I was a stranger in a strange land, feeling my age.

So I had Friday to look forward to.

I’ve been waiting for Our Souls at Night for a while. It was the third act of a cinematic meta-story, pairing two of the biggest movie stars from my youth, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, following up on Barefoot in the Park in 1967 and The Electric Horseman a dozen years later (they also made their screen debuts in the same film, 1960’s Tall Story, and played an estranged couple in The Chase in 1966). They were always on my movie radar.

The dynamic duo, Barefoot in the Part (left) and Our Souls at Night (right)

The dynamic duo, Barefoot in the Part (left) and Our Souls at Night (right)

They were also the same age as my parents, a bare generation ahead of me, and as they aged I aged with them, always watching for signs of life.

An unusual life, since they’re movie stars. Redford, impossibly handsome, wears his years as anyone does, the hours spent on the ski slopes etching his skin, but c’mon. It’s Robert Redford. His hair is still thick (unlike mine) with only hints of gray (like mine).

Fonda, on the other hand, has taken pains to look as youthful as possible, including what seems to be judicious plastic surgery (I believe her when she says she had it; I just see no obvious, Joan Rivers-like signs).

And Fonda has already made the jump to the new century, appearing in HBO’s The Newsroom and in the Netflix hit Grace & Frankie with Lily Tomlin. I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear they were teaming up again, this time with Netflix, for Our Souls at Night, adapted from Kent Haruf’s final novella about life in the eastern Colorado (fictional) town of Holt.

So I was ready for Friday night with these guys. I got pizza and everything.

And now I’m just confused.

I didn’t like the film so much. I wanted to, and it’s not bad at all, just slow and predictable in many ways (not having read the book). A couple of performances struck me as sticking out for their oddness (Fonda’s son appears to have dropped in from some other, much darker movie), the music set a tone that didn’t work for me at all, and I found it hard to relate to these senior citizens; not only are they familiar faces, but their kids are the ages of my kids, not me. My mother is 80, as they are, and her grandchildren are adults with kids of their own, not 7 years old as in this film.

But this is all minor and personal, as is the slow pace and some dull dialogue. The wattage of these former superstars has dimmed a little, but they’re pros and the performances are first-rate. Fonda in particular creates a nuanced character, her usual Hollywood elegance tamped down for the role, wearing her hair long and gray, favoring grandma jeans and practical nightgowns, and unafraid of her age.

Redford is harder to assess. He’s always been, in my opinion and experience watching him in pretty much everything, fighting his natural charm, slipping into reticence and stoicism rather than taking the easy smile and surfing his prettiness. His character’s past seems unrelated to the man we see in the film, a “good man,” as Fonda’s character refers to him several times. A good guy, a decent man, and it’s hard to picture the younger version, who apparently danced with destiny before settling for doing the right thing.

Fonda and Redford play Addie and Louis, respectively, long-time neighbors in this small town, both single now after long marriages, living alone and being alone. Addie proposes one day, out of the blue, that they two of them share a bed, not for sex (heaven forbid, that’s all in the past) but for companionship, insomnia being something they share, hand in hand with loneliness.

This is the problem with Our Souls at Night. We’re trying to see these lives, two elderly people seeking companionship and affection in the remaining years, and we keep bumping up against movie stars. These are not unbelievable characters, just unlikely as portrayed here. It would be one thing to imagine the lives of two remarkably youthful senior citizens, doing un-senior things; it’s just difficult to accept the sedate, slow march of this relationship while we watch these famous faces.

This is unfair, and I knew while I watched. Two very good actors are creating characters, and I refuse to see past the familiarity. These are fine performances, subtle and moving, and it’s not their fault I wanted to see another movie.

I think I wanted to see On Golden Pond, in fact, Jane Fonda’s partnership with her father and Katharine Hepburn. Judy Greer, who in this film shines (as always) in a cameo as Redford’s daughter, would be wonderful in the younger Fonda’s part from Pond, and I can easily see Bob and Jane as Hank and Kate, their star power put to good use, not dampened for a more pedestrian story.

So, it’s all about me.

I loved the last part of Our Souls at Night, which is when I realized I really loved the whole thing. I wanted another film, I guess, which is where my disappointment comes in, but really?

On Golden Pond was showy, theatrical, sentimental, a star turn for its famous actors. Redford and Fonda are famous actors, too, in my mind on equal footing with Henry Fonda and Hepburn, and there’s nothing showy about this movie, just normal. There’s an existential sadness flowing through it, never prominent but always there, their awareness (and ours) that these two people, only older versions of their younger selves, not much more, have nothing but now. The past is set in concrete, and futures are barely worth pondering. Their friends die, more will die, and then they too will be gone, a natural progression that still feels unnatural, somehow. This is what keeps us up at night, and maybe why I was waiting for a little Hollywood magic, just a little.

Chuck Sigars1 Comment