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Jason Bourne’s Midlife Crisis

Matt Damon is back on the ‘Bourne’ train, and Ben Affleck is Batman. Can our action heroes age gracefully?

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Here is the full list of Matt Damon’s starring roles between (1) The Bourne Ultimatum leaving theaters in the fall of 2007 and (2) Matt Damon signing on for Jason Bourne in the fall of 2014: The Informant!, Invictus, Green Zone, Hereafter, True Grit, The Adjustment Bureau, Contagion, Margaret, We Bought a Zoo, Promised Land, Behind the Candelabra, Elysium, The Zero Theorem, The Monuments Men.

By my rough count — let’s call True Grit (lower-tier Coen brothers and not a huge role but sure), Contagion, [clears throat, uses special Margaret voice] Margaret, and Behind the Candelabra wins — Damon went 4-for-14 between Bourne contracts. And if we limit ourselves to films in which Damon played a true lead? You could easily argue that he went winless. From this vantage point, Damon’s staying power during that time period — it never “felt” like he was in a slump, and never became a mainstream narrative — was actually fairly remarkable.

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

But not even Matt Damon could survive forever with that kind of record. And so it makes only too much sense that he would dip his toes back into the Bourne waters. To stay viable as a hitmaker at 45, and with no obvious New Thing in sight (The Martian was still a full year away when he signed on for Bourne), remaking his biggest hit to date — “playing the hits,” so to speak — may have been the only choice he had.

And that’s certainly what the prospect of more Bourne long seemed like, from Damon’s perspective: a safety valve. A fourth Bourne has always felt like his “break glass in case of emergency” option — a surefire hit that would be there when needed.

Jason Bourne was always Matt Damon’s insurance policy.

It shows. With the right mind-set, you could almost imagine Damon and director Paul Greengrass making a weirdo classic: a personal movie about an aging, tired, 40-something Jason Bourne — his self-titled album. Instead, it’s a movie for its own sake: a flat, often logicless, and mostly lame addition to what has otherwise been a dependable franchise.

And what’s most interesting to me — more interesting than the irony of The Martian preceding Jason Bourne and being a hit, anyway; more interesting than the coda to all of this, which is Jason Bourne being the worst Bourne by far — is that (“slump,” “insurance policy,” “rationalizing True Grit”) we’ve even reached midlife to begin with. For Damon, but also for several other stars, in their own specific ways. Think of it as the post-Cruise, post-Washington, post-Pitt, post-Downey, post-Depp generation: The young leading men of the late ’90s are now at the crossroads of their 40s.

These are “midlife crises” as general as they are specific: In a conceptual sense, the leading man is now itself at a crossroads. This isn’t just a generation of actors aging out of being leading men. It is also a generation of moviegoers aging out of wanting them.

But a market crash makes the market even more fascinating — and the star markets of Damon and his contemporaries are no exception.

Damon, with Jason Bourne, has chosen to “play the hits.”

Below are five other strategies — each different, but all connected by one common theme: This is 40.

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Ben Affleck (43): To Thine Movie-Star-Looking Self Be True

Ben Affleck’s 40s have been a true testament to the power of perception — and an even truer testament to the allure of movie stardom. For context: Ben Affleck was in “acting jail” from, roughly, 2003 (Gigli) until 2010 (The Town). Think about that: Seven years! For seven years, Ben Affleck wandered the Hollywood wilderness: Paycheck, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas, Hollywoodland, Smokin’ Aces, He’s Just Not That Into You, State of Play (I liked it), The Company Men — we’re talking a long-ass walk through the “Clerks II cameo? Sure” 2000s rainforest.

And now: Think about what Ben Affleck’s first moves were as soon as he got out of jail. Think about the very first thing that Ben Affleck pursued after earning a bit — even the slightest bit — of goodwill as the director of Gone Baby Gone.

Yup, that’s right: MORE BEN AFFLECK ACTING PARTS.

Between 2012’s Argo and the 2017 release of his next directorial effort, the forthcoming Live by Night, Affleck will have taken on the following acting projects: To the Wonder (gives a better Raw Malick Performance than Brad Pitt or Christian Bale); Runner Runner (gives great tagline and good villain), Gone Girl (gives middlebrow penis), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (gives iconic vest), The Accountant (gives B+ trailer), and Justice League (gives cautious optimism). That’s incredible. That list is so … what’s the word … Affleck. I truly can’t think of one role on there that the pre–acting jail Ben Affleck wouldn’t have also taken. And while some might call this a bad case of “not learning from the past” — my own opinion couldn’t be more to the contrary: This is great.

Because honestly — let’s be real — fuck directing. Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo — all are some degree of very good. But can you name a single personal touch that Affleck put on those movies as a director? I know I can’t. On the other hand, here’s a secret: Ben Affleck is an amazing movie star — and he always was. NOTHING changed. He made a few bad decisions (and/or had a little bad luck) in the 2000s … and he stopped getting great movie star roles as a result. But he’s never stopped having that gene. (A modest thought experiment: Take away every awful Zack Snyder–ness from Dawn of Justice, and every pleasing Christopher Nolan–ness from The Dark Knight. Which movie has the better Batman performance?) Let’s just accept it: Ben Affleck is a born movie star.

And I think these past few years of Affleck are a perfect example of what a leading man’s 40s can be used for: shaking things up, and trying new things — and building, not a new identity, but simply a better one. Forties Ben Affleck is proof that the only reason to put out a serious record is so that people take your pop records more seriously. He’s proof that Batman is a story about hanging out and being into hobbies. And finally, he’s proof that — at any age — there is no better endgame than staying true to your worst and best self.

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Will Smith (47): The Impossibly Cool Dad

Will Smith probably had the highest peak — let’s say Bad Boys through Hitch — of any of his contemporaries. And yet he’s also, on the surface, probably done the least since that peak: The most recent non-sequel Smith hit was 2008’s Hancock. The misses (Seven Pounds, After Earth) have been severe. But mostly? He just … hasn’t been around. Will Smith really didn’t work very much for a while.

Take a closer look, though, and I think Will Smith’s 40s have actually followed a particularly rewarding path: He’s put his kids on.

First, consider the true scope of the ungodly amount of Hollywood capital that Will Smith accrued in the ’90s and ’00s. (He basically ANNEXED AN ENTIRE HOLIDAY WEEKEND INTO HIS PERSONAL BRAND.) And then consider the true scope of how, over the next decade or so, he chose to spend it: By being the most powerful stage dad alive — and trampolining his kids into their own promising careers. There’s even a clear dividing line between eras: Hitch, the Unofficial (But Fight Me) Last Great Will Smith Movie, in 2005; and The Pursuit of Happyness, his first high-profile act as Will Smith, Stage Dad, in 2006.

From there we got Jaden Smith’s Will-produced Karate Kid remake in 2010 (a huge hit), and Willow Smith’s breakout single “Whip My Hair” in 2011 (still, five years later, one of my favorite songs of the ’00s). And not only did Will Smith help his kids get big; he also let them get weird while getting big — and in the weirdest, best way. (“When you think about an apple, you also think about the opposite of an apple.” — Jaden Smith.) (“There’re no novels that I like to read so I write my own novels, and then I read them again, and it’s the best thing.” — Willow Smith.) It’s hard — really hard! bordering on oxymoronic! — to be a cool dad. And we should take a second to celebrate that that’s what Will Smith is.

But now the Stage Dad era of Smith’s career is coming to a close. His kids have gone away to what we might as well call show-business college: They’re working on careers of their own, with their own independent momentum. And Smith’s career is entering its own new chapter as a result: This is his mid-’10s “Dad is Getting Back Into the Shit He Used To Do” period.

The results have been … the results: Was Concussion good? Not really. Was Focus good? I know people who think Focus was good. Am I looking forward to Suicide Squad? What is this, an interrogation? Jared Leto could rip open the movie screen from within and walk out into the theater and pour purple tattoo ink over my head — and I’ll still love this Will Smith period.

Because this is Will Smith on his empty-nester shit. And, like any other empty-nesting parent, yeah — he’s finding out that it’s a bumpy ride. But guess what: It’s still a ride. If it helps, maybe think of these as Will Smith’s “Wizards MJ” years: “His kids get to see him play!” “23, 6 and 5!” Like: We all know the score — and it’s fine.

Anyway, I’ll root for Will2k forever and watch all 41 Suicide Squad trailers and never see a single minute of the new Independence Day out of respect and go to Bad Boys III on opening night. Will Smith is untouchable.

Parents just understand.

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Leonardo DiCaprio (41): Literally Don’t Do a Single Thing

Want to guess what the next movie coming up on Leonardo DiCaprio’s IMDb is?

Yeah — I mean, the very next one. Like, what’s the next one coming out.

Take a second.

OK — got your guess?

[You guess.]

Sorry, that’s incorrect. The answer we were looking for is actually “nothing.”

And while “nothing” is probably the name of an unproduced Alejandro Iñárittu screenplay lying around Sean Penn’s basement, that’s not at all what I mean. What I mean is: Leonardo DiCaprio is currently working on … nothing.

NOTHING.

As in: nothing. As in: The most current acting project on his IMDb page is literally The Revenant. As in: Leonardo Dicaprio spent his 30s chasing a singular goal — the most singular goal an actor can chase. And then finally, at 41, got it. And now … with Oscar in tow … is clearing all decks. As in: It’s entirely possible that Leonardo DiCaprio will go all of 2016 and all of 2017 — Years 42 and 43 — without a movie.

What will he do instead? Who knows. (Sometimes when I say “who knows” I mean “try to save and also, incidentally, date the world.”) But whatever goes on in the meantime, this feels like a great and much-needed reset button for Leo — who had (disclaimer: it worked, so who are we to judge) descended into a bit of parodic self-seriousness during the last legs of his Oscar chase.

Here’s hoping that, when DiCaprio does come back, he can finally relax a little. Not “unconvincingly pretend to have fun while desperately trying to backdoor into an Oscar through Best Supporting” relax. Relax relax. Like, “Leonardo DiCaprio rom-com [shivers, presses human-skull-size GREENLIGHT button]” relax. Like, “power-move Miles Teller out of War Dogs 2” relax.

Like, “Leonardo DiCaprio biopic” relax.

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Mark Wahlberg (45): The Doesn’t-Care-About-Cool Dad

Mark Wahlberg, onetime Diggler and shooter and fighter and gambler, finds himself the most currently bankable star on this list — and by a good margin, having dropped Ted, Lone Survivor, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Daddy’s Home, all after turning 40. And don’t expect that to stop anytime soon: Wahlberg’s next four projects are (Mark …) Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day, Transformers: The Last Knight, and Daddy’s Home 2. Like it or not, that’s as good of a chance to go 4-for-4 as you’ll see.

What makes Mark Wahlberg’s 40s such a force at the box office? Well, here’s a theory: He’s become the Dad of 2010s cinema. There’s “I’ll bail you (or your flagging franchise) out, no questions asked” Dad Wahlberg (Transformers). There’s “yeah, I still know some swear words, so what” Dad Wahlberg (Ted). There’s “could I have stopped 9/11 if I had just been on the plane? I’m not prepared to say one way or the other” Dad Wahlberg (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day). There’s “working on my novel” Dad Wahlberg (The Gambler). And there’s even “I had some wild times back in the day” Dad Wahlberg (Entourage).

But the key is, Mark Wahlberg saw an opening and he took it. He’s the Dad the movies have always wanted, whether they knew it or not. Reviews lie, receipts don’t.

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Bradley Cooper (41): Bloom Late—and Often

There are two key differences between Bradley Cooper and everyone else on this list: (1) Bradley Cooper wasn’t a star in the ’90s, and (2) you probably didn’t think that Bradley Cooper was 40. These differences are deeply connected.

Why? Because Bradley Cooper’s 40s — at their very essence — are about one connective property: being a late bloomer.

Where Damon and Affleck and Smith and DiCaprio and Wahlberg have all been stars since their 20s (or earlier), Bradley Cooper didn’t become a full-fledged leading man until 2011, with Limitless. This seems impossible — it seems like Bradley Cooper has been with us, as an A-lister in our lives, for at least a decade — but it’s true. Bradley Cooper is the exact same age as Leonardo DiCaprio; yet he’s been a movie star, a real movie star, for barely over five years.

And while he can’t get the years prior to 2011 back … what he can do — what Bradley Cooper is doing — is something much more powerful: He is engaging in the dark, ancient art of “making up for lost time.”

Movie where a guy takes a pill that makes him (what, no, why would you choose this as your first superpower) write his novel faster? Bradley Cooper is in. Hall of Fame bad idea (but surprisingly watchable) A-Team remake? Bradley Cooper is in. Speaking the ever-living piss out of intermediate — just kidding, in case Bradley Cooper is reading this, his French is really good — French? Bradley Cooper is in. Friendship? Bradley Cooper is in. SOMEWHAT CREEPILY READING LOLITA ALOUD IN A PARISIAN PARK WITH A CHARTER MEMBER OF THE THICK EYEBROW MODEL CLIQUE? Bradley Cooper is in. Network pilot based on the movie where the guy takes the pill? Bradley Cooper is (frankly embarrassingly) in. Voicing a raccoon? Bradley Cooper is in. Rock Star Chef movie — after having already made a failed Rock Star Chef TV show? Bradley Cooper is in. Directing Lady Gaga — REPLACING BEYONCÉ — in a remake of A Star Is Born? Bradley Cooper is out. Wait, no, nevermind! Bradley Cooper is in.

The point is — well, you get the point: Bradley Cooper has spent the past five years being insanely, gloriously in. He’s saying “yes” when every other actor at his level is saying “no.” He is dancing like nobody’s watching, but for “being a celebrity.” And it’s really paying off: Because making the decisions of a younger actor … has somehow literally made him seem like a younger actor.

And if you’re looking for a reason Leonardo DiCaprio feels like he’s three years away from his “Marlon Brando in The Score,” while Bradley Cooper feels like he’s just getting started — it’s this.

Bradley Cooper is living out his 40s in the best way possible: Like he’s 39.