It's the fear of any successful creative person, anyone who started their career as a young buck with fire in the belly, all the ambition in the world, all the idealism of the new and stupid: What happens when you make it? What happens when you achieve your goals, early in your life, and you have to keep on living? How do you stay hungry? How do you not get complacent? How do you not turn into everything you hate, everything you started out rebelling against? How do you avoid getting fat and happy? And deep down ... is that something you really want to avoid?
In the mid-70s, Lawrence Kasdan was a copywriter in Los Angeles who, like all copywriters in Los Angeles, fancied himself a screenwriter. He spent years having his scripts rejected—while winning a Clio for a campaign he wrote about bacon—and nearly giving up before the screenplay he considered his best was finally sold to Warner Bros. It was called The Bodyguard, and it was meant to star Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. His script wouldn't be made for nearly two decades, but he had made his name, particularly after he sold a script about a grizzled newspaper reporter who discovers himself and finds love in the wilderness to Steven Spielberg. The movie ended up being called Continental Divide, starring John Belushi in a "serious" role, but that didn't matter. Now he was riding with Spielberg's crew. Before he turned 30, he was the co-writer on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. His copywriting career was over.
After co-writing Return of the Jedi, Kasdan spent the next 10 years making his own movies—consistently smart, mainstream movies that won both awards and box office records. He might have been the most powerful non-Spielberg in Hollywood. The run is impressive even 30 years later: Body Heat, The Big Chill (which was a ripoff of John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus 7, though no one remembers that now), Silverado, The Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon. (I even liked Wyatt Earp, generally considered his grand failure.) Kasdan was no Scorsese, but within the Hollywood system, he regularly produced thoughtful, grownup films, which is to say, he regularly did the impossible.
Then, sometime around 1995, he just...stopped. His films after that look like something Taylor Hackford or John Badham or any old studio hack would make: French Kiss ... Mumford ... Dreamcatcher. He clearly no longer gave a shit. Kasdan had made his money through the Spielberg and George Lucas films, and through The Big Chill. His sons were off making their own films (Jake Kasdan has taken a similar path, even faster, from the challenging Zero Effect in 1998 to the wretched Bad Teacher last year). Eventually he wasn't much involved in movies at all—a poor man's Francis Ford Coppola.
Kasdan's first movie in nine years comes out today, called Darling Companion, and it's as indulgent and flabby and self-satisfied as anything you'd expect from a filmmaker who calls it the third of his "Boomer Trilogy.". (Speaking for all non-Baby Boomers here: Barf.) It's a dull, lazy, barely alive "drama" about rich white people who lose their dog, but just for a little while. Seriously, that's it. Oh, and I forgot the Magical Negro character—here it's a Magical Gypsy—who is more spiritually in touch with the earth than the rich white characters, and therefore easily used for their meglomaniacal self-actualization. Honestly, fuckin' Boomers, man.
It's a dreadful film. Lawrence Kasdan has turned into a fourth-rate Nora Ephron.
But it shouldn't be a surprise. Peter Bogdanovich went from Paper Moon to that ESPN movie with Tom Sizemore playing Pete Rose. (Really.) William Friedkin went from The Exorcist and The French Connection to The Hunted. Jim Sheridan went from My Left Foot to Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. Barry Levinson made Toys. James L. Brooks looks completely lost. I have no idea what happened to Oliver Stone.
Your Robert Altmans, your Woody Allens, your Terence Malicks ... they are the stubborn exceptions. Guys like them are also likely to live less happy lives, which is not unrelated. Eventually, if you're more normal, you stop fighting. Eventually you realize you like your big house, or you realize you have alimony payments, or you just invest in the wrong swath of land in Mission Hills. Having fought so hard to get into the game, you check out. You become just another old white guy.
And next thing you know, you're making movies about how you lost your dog and how your back hurts and how you need Viagra and how your kids are getting married and how your vacation home just doesn't feel like as much of an escape as it used to be and how your investment portfolio has lost a ton of value and how your wife isn't as attractive as she used to be and Jesus Christ where is that goddamned dog?
Part of this is the relentless consumerism and indulgence of the Baby Boomer generation. We're going to be paying to keep these people alive and pampered for the next 50 years, having to listen to them yammer their BMW-hippie bullshit all the while. But it is foolish to think that a younger generation of filmmakers is going to be any different. Maybe a Quentin Tarantino or a Paul Thomas Anderson will be an outlier. I have hope for Rian Johnson and Edgar Wright.
But younger people are no less immune to the appeal of a fancy house and German car and everyone always returning their phone calls after years of ignoring them. Freaking John Singleton is making Taylor Lautner movies. Do you think Jason Reitman is going to become less self-assured over the next two decades? That's a guy whose gonna be begging some people to be a part of his Juno, The Next Generation "re-imagining" in 15 years. David O. Russell has already gone through this once; now that his time in the wilderness is over, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see him go the Bogdanovich route. David Fincher is prickly and brilliant, but he clearly likes working within the system in every possible way; he's a flop or two away from rebooting Batman. (Which actually would be kind of awesome, now that I think about it.) David Gordon Green has already gone crazy, pretty much the first time someone waved a hundred-dollar bill and a joint in front of him.
People get older, and they get less hungry, and they figure out how to make their lives work for them in a way they didn't know how to in their twenties. A lot of times, what makes them happier as a person makes them worse as a filmmaker. Maybe it's completely sane to stop pushing so hard, to relax and have a glass of wine and buy a second home and enjoy the fruits of your past labors. Maybe it's the only way to keep moving forward as a grown, mature human being. If so, more power to them. Whatever makes you happy, Lawrence Kasdan. But please don't pretend you can still make movies anymore, that you still have something to say. I just don't care about your freaking dog.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch. Top image by Jim Cooke.