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Meeting Mid-life with Maturity: American Beauty, Fight Club and The Incredibles

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Meeting Mid-life with Maturity: <em>American Beauty</em>, <em>Fight Club</em> and <em>The Incredibles</em>

Between the ages of 17 and 18, still with so much growing up to do, I saw a slew of films that would redefine what the medium was capable of and completely change my world perspective. Some people read books about inspirational, anti-authoritarian figures that became a rallying cry for a generation; I saw The Big Lebowski. Shortly after, a simple laid-back attitude wasn’t enough, for I had witnessed Fight Club and American Beauty. Suddenly, I came to understand that getting good grades never really made me any happier—a temporary ego boost, perhaps, but never anything lasting. Further, I realized that getting Cs had never bothered me for more than a few weeks; by the end of a semester, I’d forgotten it ever happened. In fact, it seemed all of a sudden as though everything my Catholic college-prep high school was teaching me about life, outside of the spiritual realm, didn’t really fit into the kind of person I saw myself as, and more importantly, the kind of person I wanted to be.

In the fall of 2004, I was 18, having digested a number of such films, and I sat down to watch Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, which I rightly expected to be a rousing piece of superhero entertainment with a few “I’m too old for this shit” jokes. What I didn’t expect was just how much the film had to say about family, how keenly Bob Parr’s story related to the journeys of characters like Fight Club’s unnamed Narrator (we’ll go with the popular opinion and call him Jack) and American Beauty’s Lester Burnham. All three of them reached a breaking point. Unfulfilled with the life they suddenly found themselves living and after a sudden moment of inspiration, they took drastic measures to change that.

It wasn’t long before I soured on American Beauty, and these days I appreciate Fight Club more than I actually love it. Roger Ebert has talked about his developing feelings towards Marcello in La Dolce Vita, and I suppose mine toward Jack and Tyler run a similar path. The problem with seeing those films at 17 is that I wasn’t nearly mature enough to see the ways those characters paid for their decisions to completely abandon their post in life. All I saw was a rejection of socio-economic advancement for something that, at the time, felt like a better way to live.

What Jack and Lester lacked that Bob had was an essential goodness. Jack’s moment of inspiration comes when his apartment is completely exploded and a mysterious modern beatnik, Tyler Durden, opens his mind by punching him in the stomach. Lester’s moment comes when he gets hot for a teenage girl. From empty beginnings come empty journeys. Jack and Lester both become incredibly self-centered, instantly dismissing nearly everyone around them and, in fact, lashing out against those who don’t conform to their nonconformity (for Jack, his boss; for Lester, his wife and her friends).

Bob, meanwhile, finds inspiration when he’s fired from his job and suddenly offered tremendous financial reward for what he believes to be a public service. And he actually becomes a better person as a result of this. He exercises, dresses better, invests time in his kids’ well-being and gives his wife the attention she deserves. This is not to say that exercising and dressing fashionably make someone a good person, but it’s clear that reclaiming the superheroic mantle he cast off has a very positive effect on Bob’s self-esteem and, in turn, makes him a more loving person.

Responsibility, however, rears its ugly head, brilliantly foreshadowed in a shot of Bob examining his torn costume. As he does so, his left hand emerges through the hole, revealing his wedding ring. If it’s not already, the symbolism will soon become clear. Bob’s been living the high life, reliving the glory days, but he’s bound by certain responsibilities that have accumulated over the last 15 years that will tear into his fantasy, forcing him to think outside of himself and consider the effects his actions have on those he loves.

Jack and Lester have no one that they care that much about and never consider what responsibilities they may have. While Lester perhaps has his daughter does reflect on how his attitude has and will affect her, the moment when he realizes that this path he set out on might not be all that great is enormously selfish. He has an underage girl in front of him, naked, and he chooses not to have sex with her because he feels weird about taking her virginity. Jack, meanwhile, loves hitting people, but isn’t entirely okay with blowing up buildings. His outrage at this subject, however, and the way he expresses it, always hints that he’s more upset about being left out by the group and left behind by Tyler. Even when he finally, totally takes responsibility, Jack is okay with the destruction of countless financial institutions because he found a girl he really likes and, theoretically, cured his schizophrenia.

Obviously, while American Beauty fails in this regard by trying to tell its audience that Lester’s story is a tragedy, Fight Club has more satirical aims than The Incredibles, and the film is, above all else, a comedy. It seems, however, that because of Bob’s essential goodness, that The Incredibles actually emerges as the most mature statement on the midlife crisis. It honors the basic desire to abandon a job that does nothing for you and even less for others and even encourages the desire to follow your dreams, while making clear the importance of some sort of loving bond and the responsibility to those bonds.

So is The Incredibles more mature simply for conveying a positive, family-friendly message? American Beauty is certainly less mature for trying to construe Lester’s journey as anything more than aimless and self-indulgent. Fight Club, however, has a strong view of male bonding and the logical ends to which Jack and Tyler’s mission would extend. Is it more mature for the questions it asks than those The Incredibles answers? The answer, perhaps, is in the question.

Scott Nye blogs at The Rail of Tomorrow. He’s a student at Emerson College in Boston.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.