I know nothing (nor will I pretend to know anything) about the sex lives of middle-aged men, yet in the span of 24 hours, I’ve watched two films in theaters that involved this exact topic. Both Broken Flowers and The 40 Year-Old Virgin are about a middle-aged man and his sex life (or lack thereof). Coincidentally, both of these films will spend the rest of August in theaters, offering two very different perspectives on two very different men, with two very different ideas about sex.
In Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, Bill Murray portrays Don Johnston, a “Don Juan,” a womanizer convinced to find the woman who may or may not have given birth to his son, 20 years ago. With the help of his neighbor and friend (a typically inspired Jeffery Wright), he narrows down the list of candidates to four women (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton). But, his journey ends up becoming a quest for his identity as an adult, and sex is merely the catalyst for discovering what he really wants in life.
In Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carrell portrays Andy Stitzer, a man convinced to find the woman with which he will finally lose his virginity. With the help of his co-worker/friends (including an always-charming Paul Rudd), he navigates through a series of candidates (Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Banks, and Leslie Mann). Ultimately, though, the lack of a sex life is a catalyst for the character’s pursuit of lifetime fulfillment, personally and professionally.
Flowers is a fairly brilliant, deadpan epic from Jarmusch, rich with pathos and sincerity. Meanwhile, Virgin is a pretty uneven yet often hilarious mix of raunchy farce and tender romantic comedy. They are united by a depiction of the unsatisfied bachelor. Both films are essentially advertisements for “settling down,” making it abundantly clear that a single man’s life can only be fun and games (and, in one case, action figures) for so long. Of course, as a single adult, perhaps I’m projecting my own biased interpretation.
Regardless, it’s hard to deny that characters in both films (Wright in Broken Flowers and Romany Malco in 40 Year-Old Virgin) are destined to prove that family life is the key to happiness. Plus, the other single adults in the films (Jane Lynch in Virgin and Sharon Stone in Flowers, in particular), are depicted as sour souls looking for new love.
Is this all a rejection of the bachelor lifestyle? People like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson used to be idolized for their avoidance of marriage. And now, in 2005, Beatty is married with kids and Nicholson pokes fun at the image (in the hit Something’s Gotta Give). And, what about the role of the women? Thankfully, both films portray women as something sacred, a wonderful examination of a woman’s support and strength. It did not go unnoticed on me that both films primarily portray the female leads as powerful and relatively successful women, many owning their own businesses.
Personally, I think these two films are about the relationship between a sex life and a quest for a better life. The results vary (Flowers is a great deal better than Virgin in so many ways), but if making love is a quest, then these two films are a pair of entertaining journeys. As Jim Jarmusch says about Broken Flowers, “I think the film is somehow about yearning – and I don’t know where that came from. Yearning for something that you’re missing, and not necessarily being able to define what it is you’re missing.”