During one of the many dream sequences that permeate Middle Age Crazy, successful but unhappy builder Bobby Lee Burnett (Bruce Dern) imagines that he’s on trial for the way he lives his life. “I find you guilty,” the dream judge declares, “of preventing your family from exercising their God-given right to tell you a bunch of shit you don’t want to hear.” That vignette illustrates everything that’s wrong—and right—about Middle Age Crazy. At a baseline level, the movie says something truthful about the way men of a certain era felt trapped after achieving the American dream. It’s the old “things you own end up owning you” conundrum. And yet the scene also illustrates that in order to solve his problems, all Bobby Lee needs to do is get the fuck over himself.
Although technically released during the first year after the Me Decade concluded, Middle Age Crazy is infused with the absurd narcissism of the entitled suburban white male circa the late ’70s. Barraged by sociocultural messaging about self-actualization, Bobby Lee represents faceless millions who couldn’t tell the difference between having it all and having enough—which is why it’s tough to care about Bobby Lee’s journey. He’s so self-centered that he can’t appreciate what he has. Making matters worse, the film’s narrative problems are compounded by execution issues. Director John Trent has a clumsy touch for dramaturgy and pacing, so he presents the content of Carl Kleinschmitt’s bland script without any special spin. For most of its running time, the picture just sits there like a run-of-the-mill TV movie. While Middle Age Crazy would be disappointing under any circumstances, it’s especially irritating because the picture was one of two projects that helped derail the career momentum Dern gained with his Oscar nomination for Coming Home (1978).
Dern earned his first shot at top billing in the early ’70s, headlining a number of interesting but unsuccessful projects, as well as a few outright turkeys, Coming Home gave Dern another chance. Middle Age Crazy and the perverse psychodrama Tattoo (1981) tanked, so Dern was thereafter relegated to supporting roles in expensive pictures and starring roles in low-budget indies. That said, Middle Age Crazy demonstrates why Dern was never destined for sustained leading-man status. Even when playing innocuous scenes, he’s got a strange twinkle in his eyes—and whenever his character gets angry, he’s frighteningly intense. Dern’s gifts include his bone-deep commitment and his myriad idiosyncrasies, so it’s a waste to put him in something as mundane as Middle Age Crazy, which was based upon, of all things, a song by Jerry lee Lewis.
It doesn’t help that the actors surrounding Dern aren’t in his league. Ann-Margret makes a valiant stab at the thankless role of Bobby Lee’s crass wife, and the rest of the actors in this Canada/US coproduction are competent but forgettable. As for the story—yawn. Bobby Lee buys a fast car, sleeps with a younger woman (a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, no less), and tells an obnoxious client to take a hike. All of this plays out like an anemic version of Blake Edwards’ sexy hit 10 (1979), though the vibe is actually more grim character study than robust sex comedy.
Middle Age Crazy: FUNKY