It’s a truism of the movie business that female stars are treated unkindly, and often cruelly, at an age when male careers are often just taking off. And it’s easy enough to find current examples of how this double standard works: Just look at Renée Zellweger, who essentially disappeared from major roles once she turned 40, and then inspired a gross press freak-out when she showed up on the red carpet this year wearing a face that had been obviously reworked.
But the stereotype isn’t destiny. Indeed, several of Hollywood’s most bankable stars at the moment are women for whom turning 40 or even 50 doesn’t seem to have hampered their success. Think of Sandra Bullock, 50, whose last three starring roles grossed almost $700 million domestically between them; think of Meryl Streep, still perpetually sought after at 65. Angelina Jolie will turn 40 next year; she just had her biggest hit ever, with Maleficent. The Belushi or Farley of our moment is a fortysomething comedienne, Melissa McCarthy, whose recent movies (Tammy, Identity Thief) have succeeded on her star power alone.
In this year’s prestige roles, too, middle age is served: The Academy Award battle for Best Actress this year is likely to be a contest between a fortysomething (Jennifer Aniston in the grieving-mother indie Cake) and a fiftysomething (Julianne Moore in the Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice).
And then there’s the likely dark horse in that race, the 38-year-old Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Her career trajectory has been uneven since she won her Best Actress statuette for Walk the Line in 2005, but if you were placing bets on the next actress to pull off a version of Streep or Bullock’s consistent middle-aged success, Witherspoon would be a compelling choice.
For one thing, she’s been a major star for years without ever really fitting the usual templates. Her breakout role, as the unstoppable Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s Election, was extraordinary and sui generis, blending charisma and hatefulness; her biggest hits, the Legally Blonde movies, were essentially send-ups of her sex appeal; and she’s most at home in parts that foreground ferocity, smarts, and ambition and rely only secondarily on her beauty.
Unfortunately, too much of her career has been spent on movies that try to make something more conventional out of her appeal — a pattern that left her making a series of weak love-triangle movies in the early 2010s, in which hunks-of-the-moment (Robert Pattinson, Chris Pine, Owen Wilson, and Paul Rudd) competed for her favors and audiences snoozed.
After that string of misfires, though, she’s taken matters into her own hands: Wild emerged from her own nascent production company, which also adapted this fall’s Gone Girl — quite an opening act. And while the movie has its weaknesses, it provides an excellent showcase for its star.
Witherspoon plays the writer Cheryl Strayed, whose bestselling memoir told the story of a long trek the author took along the Pacific Crest Trail, a thousand miles from the Mojave up to Oregon, after her mother (a beatific Laura Dern, in the movie) died suddenly of cancer and her marriage fell apart — though “fell apart” makes it sound accidental, when really Strayed, devastated by her mother’s passing, took dynamite to her union’s foundations, cheating on her husband (played in the adaptation by a wistful, woeful Thomas Sadoski) compulsively and eventually sliding down into heroin abuse.
So her hike was an attempt conducted mostly in solitude, with occasional care packages and brief encounters along the way — to put pieces back together, to reintegrate herself, to grapple with guilt and grief and all the rest. And it came off, not uneventfully, but without the kind of extreme collision with nature that usually lifts wilderness sojourns into movie material: Strayed didn’t have to self-amputate (though she does jettison one truly miserable pair of boots), she isn’t menaced by megafauna, she has some uncomfortable encounters but nothing full Deliverance, and (spoiler alert) she doesn’t die.
Which means that, as cinema, Wild is pretty much all on Witherspoon: Her journey is interspersed with flashbacks and fragments from her former life, her relationship with her mother, her drugs-and-adultery spiral, but she’s the only character who registers, and if we aren’t interested in her there isn’t enough incident on her journey to make the trip worth taking.
Fortunately, we are, because she does her character’s many different modes so very well: hardened and vulnerable, capable and unstrung, sexy and radioactive and everything in between. There’s a lot that’s imperfect or irritating about Wild — Dern’s beaming mother never crystallizes as anything but a gauzy memory; there’s a little too much Eat Pray Love–ish self-worship in Strayed’s eventual epiphanies. But you don’t have to agree with someone’s philosophy of life to find her a fascinating traveling companion, and Witherspoon does what movie stars are supposed to do: She makes the trip worthwhile.