When you get right down to it, the concept of the “midlife crisis”–a mental and emotional barrier faced by middle-aged individuals questioning the trajectories of their lives–provides for the perfect narrative starting point in a movie or TV series. It’s a relatable moment of the human experience recognized across cultures and languages, even by those who have never experienced a midlife crisis themselves. It presents an obvious challenge for a protagonist to overcome, or an inciting incident driving an antagonist down a darker path. It’s one of those rare moments where an otherwise steady life can branch off wildly down an unexpected path. In other words, narrative gold!
And yet, the midlife crisis can be depicted in so many different ways in TV or film, along the full genre axis that runs from comedy to tragedy, and everywhere in between. With a certain degree of levity, a midlife crisis can be the fodder for a workplace comedy or a sitcom, with the understanding being that our protagonist is going to just keep doing their best with hope in their heart, pushing toward a brighter future. On the other end of the spectrum, a midlife crisis can be presented with the sobering starkness of our own reality, derailing lives or contributing to depression that may even be suicidal in nature. In such a crisis of identity, you never truly know if a person will emerge unscathed.
Here, then, are 10 of our favorite depictions of characters struggling through the midst of a midlife crisis, in the worlds of both film and TV. We’ve tried to keep this to a genuinely “midlife” range, meaning that we’ve eschewed characters who are both arguably too old (Lost in Translation) or young (Frances Ha) to properly qualify.
1. American Beauty (1999)
Screenwriter Alan Ball mined his experience as an unsatisfied member of the television industry to pen American Beauty—a beautiful meditation on the hollowness of American suburbia and its materialism. Although Ball originally intended it for the stage, director Sam Mendes made the film intensely personal for each character, adding the kind of emotional heft that only a film—when expertly executed—can provide. This is the story of Lester Burnham’s complete journey from imprisoned office worker to carefree teenager to enlightened adult, although each character undergoes a similar transformation. The film may nominally be about Burnham’s obsession with the titular Angela Hayes, but its real message is that a more powerful beauty can be found in unexpected places. You just have to look closer.—Allie Conti
2. Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Some argue that The Wire is TV’s best drama of all time; others stand up for Mad Men or The Sopranos, the latter of which has the benefit of being so important historically that it begins many textbooks’ modern TV eras. But Breaking Bad made its bones quickly, publicly, and with plenty of pizzazz. It entered the TV landscape with just a few episodes of tonally questionable wobbling—the balance-finding of an ambitious acrobat searching for the tightrope’s center—and stuck the landing on the remaining five seasons. Who cares if the first season’s DVD case called it a dramedy? America knew what it was immediately, even if we didn’t know exactly where it was going. How has the tragic ballad/midlife crisis of science teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) weathered its title over the years? If the current TV landscape is anything to judge by, it’s a proud grandfather, looking over its progeny with the same glee and gentle judgment of any overachieving patriarch. Breaking Bad may not have established the paradigm of unlikable anti-heroism in pop drama, but it certainly put the “pop” in the designation. —Jacob Oller
3. City Slickers (1991)
City Slickers is a first round selection in the especially niche category of the midlife crisis buddy comedy, films about middle-aged men–because it always seems to be men, and only rarely women–who find themselves adrift and unfulfilled around the time they turn 40, wondering how they can bring meaning back to their lives. And here, you’re given not just one midlife crisis for your buck but three of them happening simultaneously, shared by a trio of urbanite friends who sign up for a two-week western cattle drive as an adventure vacation/soul-searching opportunity. Of course, of the three it’s Billy Crystal’s Mitch Robbins who is truly put front and center, as a guy whose life really doesn’t seem all that actively bad or painful … and yet, he does tap into a certain universal ennui of the man slowly realizing that despite his relative health and success, his “best days” are firmly behind him. Perhaps being thrust into life-and-death scenarios and decidedly gross cattle-birthing opportunities–and facing down the weathered hideousness of Jack Palance’s face–will help him recapture his zest for life? —Jim Vorel
4. The Good Place (2016-2020)
The Good Place illustrates both a single episode “midlife crisis” and a series-long extrapolation of the same themes, when it comes to the character of Ted Danson’s Michael. A demon of the “Bad Place” driven to find a new, creative way to torture human souls in the afterlife, Michael suffers a comically over the top and stereotypical midlife crisis after resident group moral philosopher Chidi (William Jackson Harper) first goads the immortal being into seriously considering the ramifications of a world without him in it. This manifests in the silliest of debauched ways, with a white suit and Ferrari, as Michael attempts to repress his thoughts of death as loudly and guilelessly as possible. But even after “recovering” from that lapse of responsibility, similar doubts about his ability to impact the world and purpose for existing continue to linger for Michael for the entire rest of the series run, as he’s often left questioning what will become of him if he can ever succeed in getting his newfound friends into the titular Good Place. After all, what role could a demon really ever hope to play in the equivalent to heaven? This search for purpose leads Michael down a path that is arguably more human than any of the genuinely human characters of The Good Place. —Jim Vorel
5. The Incredibles (2004)
Even superheroes can find themselves powerless in the presence of a potent midlife crisis. That’s what happens to Craig T. Nelson’s Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible in Brad Bird’s seminal Pixar animated feature, as he seeks escape from the mounting stresses of an unsatisfying career and fraught home life by secretly returning to the superhero work that once gave his life meaning as a younger man. This is such a classic depiction of the type of genuine midlife crises faced by so many people in American society, and his dalliance in forbidden (but fulfilling) superheroism takes on the air of an extramarital affair–it revives his spirits and even his romance with wife Helen (Holly Hunter), but simultaneously threatens to fracture the family when the truth is of course discovered. As Edna Mode succinctly observes: “Men of Robert’s age are often unstable … prone to weakness.” Luckily for Bob, his entire family is there to remind him of what is really most important. —Jim Vorel
6. Office Space (1999)
Great comedy almost always has a dark heart. (The flipside is also true of great horror: It almost always teeters on the edge of farce). But this makes sense: Laughter is our response to absurd and unexpected contradictions; comedy needs its darkness to fully flourish. Mike Judge, the writer/director of Office Space, knows this well. His humor concerns the lowest, saddest schmucks on the corporate ladder (thus 99% of us can relate) who mostly feel dead inside, turning to Kung Fu films and cheap beer to escape. It’s a subject as old as capitalism itself: Most of us are unhappy, not doing what we want, feeling our dreams escaping us more and more with each passing day. For protagonist Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), the goal of his midlife crisis is a subversive joy: Independently, from no wellspring of societal angst (unlike, say, The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock), he wants to do nothing. And besides being a hilarious antidote to scores of predictable, cookie-cutter hyperactive hero-protagonists, his needs feel absolutely real, and is what the corporate rat race deserves in an anti-hero. The do-gooder replaced by the do-nothing. It also helps that Judge has a cast perfectly on board with his tone. Together, they turn caricature into depth, a cartoon into vivid life. —Harold Brodie
7. Our Flag Means Death (2022-present)
Midlife crises manifest as many things, and in Our Flag Means Death, Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) checks off all the usual criteria. A flashy new vehicle? Yep. A flashy new relationship? Of sorts. A drastic career change? Well, that’s an understatement. Inspired by the stranger-than-fiction true story, the 10-episode historical adventure comedy follows the aftermath of Bonnet leaving his cushy aristocratic life to become a pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. “Pirate workplace comedy” provides an entertaining entry point, and Darby serves as the show’s hapless but well-meaning boss, bringing a Ted Lasso-esque mentality to the captain who wants his crew to grow as people, not just pirates. Taika Waititi co-stars as the legendary Blackbeard who’s having a midlife crisis of his own, and poses a perfect foil to Bonnet’s antics. While the first few episodes are uneven, creator David Jenkins ultimately strikes a satisfying balance between exploring Blackbeard and Bonnet’s supercharged friendship and adding dimension to supporting players. The season doesn’t quite unearth buried treasure, but by the affecting finale, Our Flag Means Death charts its course in the right direction. —Annie Lyons
8. Review (2014-2017)
Review is quite possibly both the saddest and funniest entry to include on a list of midlife crisis stories, chronicling as it does one middle-aged man’s utterly determined and idealistic destruction of his own life, for the most genuinely altruistic of reasons. Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) genuinely believes he’s doing the world a great service by starring in Review, implied to be the modern equivalent of a local public access TV show where the newly minted “life reviewer” agrees to try out any experience the viewers wish in the search of profound truths about the universe. Unfortunately for Forrest, this mostly just leads to him being abused with questions like “What’s it like to eat 15 pancakes?” or “What’s it like to be an addict?”, all of which he dutifully attempts to answer. Everyone else around Forrest–notably his wife and young son–are at a loss to explain the sudden changes in his behavior, which begins a downward spiral that sees Forrest effectively losing everything precious to him because of his commitment to the incredibly stupid idea that is Review. The audience, on the other hand, comes to feel that Review must represent some attempt by Forrest to bring meaning to a safe but unfulfilled suburban existence, but midlife crises are rarely so acute and all-consuming as they are here. —Jim Vorel
9. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Don’t call it a chick flick; it’s the ride-or-die movie to end all ride-or-die movies. Ridley Scott directed Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in the critically acclaimed story about two friends on the road and on the run, in the midst of a shared identity crisis. In search of adventure they discovered crime, love and that all-too-real freedom that comes at a great cost. With knockout performances from an entire cast (which included Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, and baby boy Brad Pitt), Thelma & Louise is that brilliant pop-culture cult-classic that simply cannot be imitated. —Shannon M. Houston
10. The World’s End (2013)
The midlife crisis of The World’s End is what happens when one man lives in delusion for as long as he can manage to keep it going, only to watch it eventually collapse under the weight of its own contrived reality. Gary King (a never-better Simon Pegg) is a 40-something party animal and alcoholic who has never wanted anything beyond the ability to preserve life as it was for him at the end of high school, when he was the handsome leader of a local cadre of goofy, debauched friends. Decades later, all of those friends have grown up and become responsible family men, but the manipulative Gary still obsesses over the idea of bringing them all back together for the sake of completing symbolic “unfinished business,” in the form of a 12-bar pub crawl in their hometown. It should be mentioned that in the course of said pub crawl, they do eventually run afoul of an alien plot to replace humanity with endless swaths of “robots filled with blue stuff,” but surprisingly the sci-fi absurdity primarily takes a backseat to the pathos of Gary’s journey toward atonement and letting go of the past. —Jim Vorel
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.