Male malaise sure had a banner year in 2006, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned. How many more times are we gonna have to sit through the same story about some supposedly endearing dude in his 20s or 30s whose quest to figure shit out exasperates everyone around him? And when I say "we," I'm implicating all y'all: The Break-Up made $114 million, and I'm guessing Vaughniston looky-loos shouldered only part of the blame.
While this brand of coming-of-age tale is nothing new - even when the age in question is decidedly postcollegiate - it's never been so pervasive. Just rake your eyes over 2006's top moneymakers: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby; Failure to Launch; You, Me and Dupree; and thinly disguised variations on the theme like Cars - animated, sure, but fronted by man-child extraordinaire Owen Wilson. Even Superman Returns featured an emotionally stunted hero on the verge of a quarter-life crisis. (As did 2005's top earner, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.)
None of the above resembles similarly themed works of years past - say, The Graduate. These days, menfolk in the cinematic mainstream cultivate an I-don't-wanna-grow-up attitude that's less existential, more slothful. It's a perfect match for a target audience that couldn't care less about the war in Iraq but is willing to kill for a PlayStation 3. And while romantic comedies such as The Break-Up, Failure to Launch and You, Me and Dupree are traditionally aimed at women, these particular films hit big because the male leads (Vince Vaughn, Matthew McConaughey and Wilson again) were calculatingly cast - they're the kinds of dudes that dudes can enjoy. The masculine ideal has definitely shifted. Why be suave when you can be a slob?
Naturally, these films all feature a buzzkill chick (Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Hudson, etc.) who marches in and snatches away the remote control. Parker's Failure to Launch character has actually made a career out of tricking ne'er-do-wells to move out of their parents' homes. The only time a male-female relationship isn't a central component in these films is when you move into Jackass: Number Two territory, which focuses on dude-dude relationships amid 2006's other chic craze: good old-fashioned torture.
There are ways to make this arrested-development story line fresh and interesting. Shaun of the Dead did it with zombies; The 40-Year-Old Virgin did it with the genius of Steve Carell. And there's hope on the other end of the spectrum: Comedies may be populated by 35-year-old juveniles, but a film like The Departed proves that men grappling with maturity isn't a topic forever bound to fart jokes.
Then there's 2006's most freakish exploration of the trend: Little Man, the tale of a guy who literally inhabits a baby's body. A more succinct deconstruction of contemporary male-centric romantic comedies would be impossible to find.