By Morey Stettner
In the movie Queen Bees (2021), a widow in her 80s moves into a retirement community and finds romance. Like many romantic comedies that feature seniors, it touches on two themes that resonate with older viewers.
The widow (Ellen Burstyn) grieves for her late husband. Early in the film, she says, “I miss him every day.”
But stewing in grief doesn’t make for a compelling character. So the second theme—confusion on how to live and love—soon follows.
Initially reluctant to move from her longtime home into a retirement village, Burstyn finally relents. Almost immediately, she encounters a male suitor (James Caan).
“I don’t know what to do,” she frets. Is she ready for a new romance?
Watching top actors court each other is harmless fun. It’s hard to notice Burstyn’s expressive eyes and not think of how those eyes conveyed the horror of watching her daughter turn satanic in The Exorcist (1973). And how can a movie buff see an aging James Caan and not recall his grisly death in The Godfather (1972)?
But on a deeper level, movies such as Queen Bees raise questions about their portrayal of how older people navigate their golden years. The message of films such as Senior Moment (2021), Our Souls At Night (2017), Elsa & Fred (2014) and Boynton Beach Club (2005) is that there are heartwarming romantic opportunities for seniors around every corner.
You just have to look for it, overcome your mental baggage and remain open to new experience.
Oh, and you better be physically attractive with no apparent religious beliefs, lots of money and sufficient health to dance, kiss and cuddle.
Of course, filmmakers usually lace the story with humor as they show older folks searching for new love. But it’s rarely the laugh-out-loud variety.
“You tend to get the same type of jokes,” said Odie Henderson, a film critic at RogerEbert.com . “Viagra jokes, jokes about being bitter and angry and jokes about ‘I’m about to die.’ And there’s the little old lady who seems nice but drops the F-bomb.”
There’s often a younger person, typically a bossy son or daughter balancing a frantic personal and professional life, insisting that the main character is too old, Henderson adds. It’s a thankless role—the middle-age scold—and that person repeatedly nags:
You’ve got to watch your health.
You’re falling in love? At your age?
I know what’s best for you. Listen to me.
The people who make these movies assume that they’re delivering the kind of fare that appeals to their target audience. They figure older viewers will enjoy seeing past-their-prime screen legends, if only to assess how they’ve aged.
For example, Ann-Margret looks like a knockout in Queen Bees but James Caan’s unsteady gait and hunched posture makes me wonder if he sustained fake-football injuries from Brian’s Song (1971) that never healed.
Some movies pair older actors with loving grandchildren. Cross-generational lessons—and high-jinks—ensue.
Dan Hudak , a retired film critic, lectures about movies at 55+ communities. When it comes to romantic comedies that star seniors, he’s especially fond of the little-seen Play The Game (2009). It was Andy Griffith’s last film credit (he died in 2012).
“It’s a treat of a movie,” Hudak said. When he screens it for older audiences, they often say, “Finally, a movie that relates to us.”
Naturally, rom-coms with seniors often come with a ticking clock.
“There’s always a specter of death in these movies,” Henderson said. “It’s ‘You better hurry and find somebody because you don’t have much time left.’”
Yet it’s endearing to watch octogenarians act like giddy teenagers. In scenes where they stammer and risk rejection by asking a new acquaintance for a date, we root for them.
“With every romantic comedy, all you want to see is for two people to be together at the end of the movie,” Henderson said.
Readers: What’s a movie geared toward older viewers that you’ve recently enjoyed? Let us know in the comments.