In the 1970s, men wore mustaches with straight faces.
That point seems important in an age when trucker hats and curated facial hair amount to riffs on other generations' notions of adulthood. The mustache has become more than a crumb receptacle and girlfriend exfoliant. Under the new macho chic, it's an ironic badge of immaturity. "I'm not really an adult," it says. "I'm just groomed that way."
In this fall's family psychodrama Margot at the Wedding, Jack Black plays Malcolm, an unemployed, philandering screw-up closing in on middle age and about to be married. He tells his future sister-in-law Margot (Nicole Kidman) of his mustache, "it's meant to be funny."
Growing up itself is a laughable prospect for Malcolm and his cinematic ilk. The very notion is redolent of the '50s: two-martini lunches, three square meals a day and stay-at-home moms. We're a nation of Pee Wee Hermans, wearing the suit and bow tie while indulging the kid-self within.
In 2006, Rejuvenile author Christopher Noxon started pounding the drum for endless cultural adolescence by riding the tail winds of Generation X's overhaul of adulthood. And films this year are echoing the idea that maturity is a choice – not a biological certainty.
Like Margot at the Wedding, the forthcoming Juno addresses what happens when cold, hard reality sets in: when death, marriage and babies intrude on a Peter Pan fantasy of perpetual adolescence.
But the poster boy for baby-man cinema is Lars (Ryan Gosling), a painfully stunted 27-year-old who finally grows up with the help of a sex doll in the winning, heartfelt drama Lars and the Real Girl. Insufficiently schooled in the transition to manhood by a grieving father, Lars is missing something essential. Until, that is, the mail-order doll arrives. Like a toddler's "teddy bear" – what psychologists would call a "transition object" for the absent mother – it becomes his emissary of human connection, the inappropriate, surprising vehicle for a maturation that evades some of his cinematic brethren.
The Peter Pan-cinema barrage continues with this weekend's release of the droll, unfortunately titled I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, centered on a character experiencing a coming-of-age closer to middle age. Thirty-nine-year-old James (played by 45-year-old actor Jeff Garlin) has a bad case of adultus interruptus.
James is overweight, romantically frustrated and living with his mother. He doggedly pursues the kind of career (acting) that's code for refusing to enter the "real" world. But he squanders his ample time by hanging out with buddies, riffing in classic slacker fashion, on women and pop culture and contemplating "grown-up" acts such as eating cheese in the park with a girlfriend. By the film's conclusion, he just settles on moving out of his mother's apartment.
James would find company in the overgrown boys of Juno and Judd Apatow's Knocked Up. Both films center on babies: the ones slow-cooking in female bellies and the ones fearful of what a child's arrival will mean to their own carefully protected boyhood.
While the protagonist of Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin contemplated first sex well past his teen years, Knocked Up looks even deeper into the abyss of contemporary never-grow-up anxiety. The idea of eminent fatherhood manages to freak out both 23-year-old Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and his more fully grown future brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd). Ben's maturity has been delayed by living with a group of perpetually adolescent boys. Pete would seem to have all the markers of real adulthood: two children, a nice home, a real job. Yet both thirtysomething Pete and wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) exhibit classic signs of post-adolescent anxiety. They worry that age and children have cramped their style.
It's a scenario played out in similar fashion in screenwriter Diablo Cody's Juno. Pregnant and precocious teenager Juno (Ellen Page) believes prosperous adults Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) would make ideal adoptive parents. But while Vanessa is devout in her baby-craving desires, Mark bears the classic characteristics of a thirtysomething late-bloomer. A frustrated rock star discontent with his suburban nest, he's not sure the definitive adult threshold of fatherhood is something he's ready for.
The real change in the 2007 approach to arrested development is its universality. Cinema has long given us a bounty of overgrown boys. Now angsty women such as Knocked Up's wife and mother Debbie (Mann) have fears and complaints as valid as those of the menfolk. In the upcoming The Savages, philandering temp Wendy (Laura Linney) – along with brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – grapples with relationships, work and immaturity into her 40s.
Men have been bucking conventional notions of manhood since The Graduate. Only recently have women in film had the chutzpah to question such milestones as marriage, babies and real jobs. It's refreshing, albeit twisted, that James' one romantic prospect in I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With is played by Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up shtick centers on over-age brattiness. Her character's perpetual adolescence is signaled by her use of words like "hoagie shack" to hint at an act adults would describe as "sex."
Once the nagging voices of reason and stability, women now revolt and regress just like men. Weirdly enough, that seems like progress.