I’ve seen the greatest men of my generation regress into petulant babies — at least in the movies. Over and over in this year’s films, male characters throw elaborate temper tantrums, whining, huffing and raging like toddlers in their terrible twos.
At Sundance in January, I joined the audience in cackling at “Fair Play,” in which a bratty finance guy devolves into a childish display of irascibility. Come summer, I saw the trend expand with the boffo success of “Barbie,” in which Ryan Gosling’s Ken makes an entire career out of pouting on the beach. And the fall saw a preschool’s worth of new baby men in “Poor Things,” “Dream Scenario” and “Anatomy of a Fall,” and one great baby man of history in “Napoleon.”
The meltdowns themselves varied — one barked like a dog, another blasted music, a few made faces, most yelled, many cried — but the trigger was the same: a perceived loss of power to a woman.
In “Poor Things,” that male torment is played for farce. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) has only recently discovered orgasms when she meets Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a local rake who piques her interest. Their bond is simple: he is besotted; she relishes his sexual prowess. But trouble arrives when the pair voyages abroad and Bella, eager to indulge in new cuisines, sights and lovers, tires of Duncan’s micromanaging. She tries to send the stage five clinger packing, but he keeps popping up, alternating between profanity-laden outbursts and beseeching appeals to reciprocate his devotion.
“I am not understanding this complicated feeling,” Bella remarks dispassionately at one point, as Duncan snivels over her sleeping with another man. The line lands as a joke; Duncan’s weepy reaction is entirely uncomplicated. But Bella’s confusion also hits on something real. Duncan doesn’t own Bella, as much as he would like to, and he sees himself as the victim of that reality.
The comedy in “Fair Play,” directed by Chloe Domont, is cast in a darker tone, and centers not on concerns about sex, but career. Here, our petulant man is Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), a hedge fund analyst who, early in the movie, loses out on a promotion to his fiancée, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor). This means that Luke reports to Emily, while she wins coveted face time with the boss.
To Luke, a silver-spoon-fed nepotism hire, nothing could be more intolerable. “I think I’m handling everything pretty well, given the circumstances,” he snarls at Emily before shrieking about how she “stole” his job.
Luke makes his thinking clear: He wanted the promotion, so it belonged to him. This delusion of entitlement is echoed, to an extent, in Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” a tremendous work of drama that follows a novelist, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), after the sudden death of her husband, Samuel (Samuel Thesis). Samuel was also a fiction writer, albeit a more stagnant one, and openly resented Sandra’s success.
In one crucial flashback, Samuel instigates a domestic scuffle with his wife. As the quarrel escalates, Samuel calls her selfish, chastises her for not learning his native language and accuses her of stealing his book premise. Finally, he prods, “I’ve given you too much — too much time, too many concessions. I want this time back and you owe it to me.”
The gender dynamics of “Anatomy” are thornier than those in “Fair Play,” but the two films play well side by side. Triet and Domont share an interest in how power seesaws in contemporary straight relationships. By positioning their couples within the same professions and then pushing them to the brink, the filmmakers are conducting a kind of test. In this more equitable era, how do men and women balance being a good partner with self-realizing? At what point does envy trump affection? Is there any going back after it does?
These are familiar questions with murky answers. The past decade has seen a cavalcade of bloated, juvenile men throw hissy fits after something they saw as their birthright — authority, prestige, admiration — was put in check. These spectacles can be sinister, pathetic and comical all at once, a semi-contradiction that movies, designed to pull in both directions, are ideally suited to dissect.
No film this year synthesized these ideas more plainly than one about a plastic doll. Near the end of “Barbie,” once the Kens unlink arms and Gosling’s Ken stomps into the Dreamhouse, Barbie (Margot Robbie) hurries to comfort him. He sobs. She says she likes him as a friend. And then the pair agree to dismantle Barbieland’s system of male supremacy and instate a more just society.
Wiping away tears, Ken confesses, “To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses, I lost interest anyway.” It’s funny to think it could be so easy. It’s excruciating to know it’s really not so hard.