Top 10 Male Adventures In Self Discovery

Top 10 Films takes a look at ten great examples of the “male adventure in self discovery” movie, a genre about coming-of-age later in life…

I saw a common theme in some of my favourite movies: male characters, ranging in age, who have come to a crossroads. In many cases they are successful; they have a wife and kids, money and prosperity, a nice car and a big house. But something is missing.

The Male Adventure in Self-Discovery has to thank the coming-of-age drama for many of its themes, but it also has links with the yuppie-in-peril movie that became very popular during the 1980s.

These films see men disillusioned with their lives. Although they don’t know what is missing, they set out, often unwittingly, to discover it. These adventures tend to focus on seemingly innocuous situations that begin to spiral out of control. And they are often instigated by a beautiful but mysterious woman. The journey, in most cases, is both a physical one that involves travel and a metaphorical one, where the protagonist goes from one state of mind to another. The answers are never straightforward but along the journey these characters find elements of their personalities they did not know they had.

10. About Schmidt (Payne, 2002)

About Schmidt, Film, Jack Nicholson, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Warren Schmidt, an old, recently retired pensioner, who loses his wife and finds himself all alone in a big house.
The Journey: From Omaha in Nebraska to Denver, Colorado by road in a Winnebago motor home in order to stop his daughter from marrying the man he believes is not good enough for her.

Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt who sets out on a journey of self-discovery in his Winnebago motor home. Director Alexander Payne has made this sub-genre his own as another of his films – Sideways – also appears on this list. Shortly after retiring, Warren’s wife dies, leaving him alone. He decides to drive from Omaha in Nebraska to his daughter’s home in Denver to persuade her that her fiancé is no good for her. About Schmidt is a wonderfully moving and heartfelt drama, with a measured and downtrodden performance from Nicholson who appears in his element playing the broken old man Warren Schmidt. Kathy Bates is also excellent in a small role.

9. Wonder Boys (Hansen, 2000)

The Protagonist: Grady Tripp, a novelist who can’t finish his latest book is sleeping with Chancellor of the university where he teaches having recently divorced from his young wife. The Journey: The journey is largely metaphorical as Grady develops relationships with ace young writer James Leer (Tobey Maguire), his attractive lodger Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), his eccentric and openly gay editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) and the universities Chancellor (Frances McDormand).

The Protagonist: Grady Tripp, a novelist who can’t finish his latest book is sleeping with Chancellor of the university where he teaches having recently divorced from his young wife.
The Journey: The journey is largely metaphorical as Grady develops relationships with ace young writer James Leer (Tobey Maguire), his attractive lodger Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), his eccentric and openly gay editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) and the universities Chancellor (Frances McDormand).

Wonder Boys was a financial disaster at the box office – twice. I can’t understand why as I’ve always seen it as a perceptive and funny story of unusual and eccentric characters finding themselves. Michael Douglas leads the way as grumpy writer and teacher Grady Tripp.

8. Naked (Leigh, 1993)

Naked, Film, David Thewlis, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Johnny, an educated and intelligent northerner finds himself at a loss when he tries to make sense of the world he lives in.
The Journey: From Manchester down to the London, Johnny stops off at a flat in the capital city before embarking on a long night through London streets, meeting an assortment of characters.

A sharp and powerful dissection of class and society in 1990s Britain sees Johnny (David Thewlis) leave England’s north-west for London where he throws his mental superiority at anyone who happens across his path. This egotistical and sadistic individual avoids being completely hated by the audience through his dogged determination to make sense of the world around him.

7. Let It Ride (Pytka, 1989)

Let It Ride, Film, Richard Dreyfuss, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Jay Trotter, a habitual gambler, has the luckiest day at the races. But he has told his wife that he won’t gamble again. Will she find out?
The Journey: His journey is one that starts and ends at the track, interacting with an assortment of varied and unconventional characters.

Richard Dreyfuss has a journey of self-discovery through gambling. Not the most innocent of ways to bring out the virtues of character but Let It Ride is so gleefully entertaining that it doesn’t matter. This is about having the luckiest day of your life. Dreyfuss is Jay Trotter, a down on his luck compulsive gambler, who spends a full day at the races where every bet he places ends up winning. It’s a funny, endearing film with an assortment of unconventional characters.

6. Sideways (Payne, 2004)

Sideways, Film, Paul Giamatti, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Miles Raymond, a perpetually drunk writer and teacher, has lost all enthusiasm for life after his divorce.
The Journey: Miles visits the Santa Ynez Valley wine country to sample some great wine and rekindle his relationship with friend Maya (Virginia Madsen).

One of the best films of the 2000s, Alexander Payne’s brilliant Sideways sees Paul Giamatti’s Miles Raymond travelling around California’s vineyards with his best friend Jack. Miles is anticipating a call from his agent regarding his book being published, while Jack wants to have one final fling before he gets married. Giamatti is perfect in the role of Miles, a miserable, self-defeating writer who hasn’t recovered from his divorce. As Miles and Jack drink wine, talk about the virtues of love, sex, women, careers and golf, all the while visiting some wonderful locations in the Santa Ynez Valley, the two learn from each other to overcome their individual flaws.

5. Withnail and I (Robinson, 1986)

Withnail and I, Film, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Withnail and I, two unemployed actors from London.
The Journey: From Camden in London to the Lake District in the north-west. Their misadventures begin with a run-in with some cows before Withnail’s gay uncle turns up with an unhealthy infatuation with “I”.

Like Sideways, Withnail and I concerns two men journeying along the path of self-discovery together, this time in a very British setting. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and his friend, referred to as “I” (Paul McGann), are a pair of unemployed actors who live in a grotty flat in Camden Town, London. They obtain the key to a holiday cottage in the north of England from Withnail’s uncle.

4. The Graduate (Nichols, 1967)

Graduate, Dustin Hoffman, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Benjamin Braddock is in his early 20s. He’s from a wealthy background and has a good education. But his parents are overbearing and he doesn’t know what to do in life.
The Journey: It begins in the bed of Mrs Robinson who draws out Benjamin’s insecurities through sex. It spirals out of control when Benjamin falls in love with Mrs Robinson’s daughter.

Dustin Hoffman is Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols’ superb The Graduate. Benjamin comes from a wealthy background, has had a good education, and recently graduated from university. But he’s stuck. He’s bored with life and doesn’t know which direction to head off in. He feels suffocated by his overbearing parents and their rich friends. Everyone knows what Benjamin should do in life apart from him. That’s when he meets Mrs Robinson (Anne Bankcroft), the beautiful wife of one of his parent’s friends. She’s care-free and alluring, and Benjamin is immediately attracted to her. He may have found someone who doesn’t dictate his life to him. And, he may also have found someone who might reciprocate the sexual urge he has for her.

3. Something Wild (Demme, 1986)

Something Wild, Film, Jeff Daniels, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Yuppie-in-Peril Charles Driggs – semi-succesful, kids, wife, home. But he needs adventure and the alluring wild-child Audrey is the woman to give it to him – in more ways than one.
The Journey: Charles is taken on a series of misadventures by femme fatale-like Audrey. They travel out of New York City, visiting various locations before ending up at Audrey’s High School reunion. This is when her ex-husband turns up and wants her back. Will Charles stand up for her?

Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is a New York businessman. He feels his life lacks excitement. That is until the sexy Audrey (Melanie Griffith) walks into his life, a larger-than-life girl with a penchant for fast-living and kinky sex. She takes Charles on a series of misadventures until her ex-husband turns up to spoil the party.

2. After Hours (Scorsese, 1985)

After Hours, Film, Griffin Dunne, Top 10 Films

The Protagonist: Paul Hackett, a bored, single office worker, who desperately seeks a spark in his life.
The Journey: When Charles loses the only $20 he has on his possession, he’s left to mull around a seemingly quiet New York City neighbourhood, getting into all sorts of mishaps with the assortment of strange yet wonderful characters.

My favourite Martin Scorsese movie sees bored office worker Paul Hackett finding himself on a strange night time adventure in a seemingly quiet neighbourhood of New York City. Firstly, he meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) who he finds attractive. In an attempt to get to know her better he says he will buy some plaster of Paris paperweights her housemate makes. This begins a long night of misadventures as Paul meets an assortment of strange yet wonderful characters.

1. Into The Night (Landis, 1985)

The Protagonist: Ed Okin, a bored, depressed office worker who can’t sleep.  The Journey: From dusk until dawn, Ed unwittingly becomes involved in a plot to smuggle jewels when he helps femme fatale Diana.

The Protagonist: Ed Okin, a bored, depressed office worker who can’t sleep.
The Journey: From dusk until dawn, Ed unwittingly becomes involved in a plot to smuggle jewels when he helps femme fatale Diana.

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John Landis’ hugely underrated Into The Night is the epitome of the male adventure in self-discovery. Starring Jeff Goldblum as insomniac Ed Okin, the film follows the thirty-something depressive as he unwittingly enters into a dusk until dawn adventure involving diamonds, the Iranian secret service, a British hit-man (played brilliantly by David Bowie), and the beautiful seductress Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ed has the wife at home, the job in the city, and the house, but he isn’t happy. Again, it is a mysterious woman that draws him out of his shell.

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens

Over to you: what are your top male adventures in self discovery?

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    Nice list, Dan. I haven’t seen a few of these, but The Graduate & Wonder Boys definitely should make the list. I love how you summarize the protagonist and his/her journey on each movie.

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    Ross McG Reply

    great list. Let It Ride! thats a late friday night on bbc underrated classic.

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    JasonW Reply

    What an interesting list. I hadn’t thought of these films in the same way before – ie. I get the similar themes seen in Sideways and About Schmidt thanks to director Payne but wouldn’t have automatically associated them with one of my other all time favourites – Something Wild! Let It Ride is also cool, as is After Hours. I must check out Into The Night, I love Goldblum.

  4. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @rtm: Yeah, there’s some terrific films in this genre. Could probably make a top 20 list quite easily.

    @Ross: And funnily enough I think I caught it for the first time late night on BBC. Terrific film.

    @JasonW: Yep – check out Into The Night. It gets some bad reviews but it’s one of my favourite films.

  5. Avatar
    Luke Reply

    Though I have just never been able to get into Sideways (something about Paul Giamatti just drives me bonkers), I’m glad to see Jack on here. And there’s nothing like The Graduate – you’d be remiss in omitting it, so well done you! 🙂

  6. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Luke: To be honest I’d probably try to find a top 10 place for The Graduate in every list I make – it is that good! Thanks for stopping by Luke.

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    Caz Reply

    Good list Dan! So pleased to see About Schmidt on the list, such an underrated film.

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    Rick Tran Reply

    Great to see Sideways on your list. I loved that movie. Paul Giammati gives one of the finest comedic performances of the last 10 years, in my humble opinion.

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    sundryandco Reply

    Withnail & I and Sideways are two fantastic films, particularly the former with its brilliant screenplay. I’m not quite sure if the following two favourites fit neatly into the title of your post, but I’ll mention them anyway – Easy Rider and Broken Flowers – Two great films.

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    BobDolemite Reply

    Fantastic f****** list! Love every single movie with a passion and Let It Ride is my favorite comedy of all time.

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    Andina Reply

    I love this list’s topic, always love movies about self discovery. What about ‘Motorcycle Diaries’? The road trip where che guavara found out what road he would choose.

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    Mette Reply

    Very interesting how women often play an important role in these movies… nevertheless you didn’t choose any MPDG movies, which is refreshing (at least it doesn’t look like it, I haven’t seen all of these).

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    I just discovered this list and completely estatic that you have Something Wild, After Hours, & Into the Night taking the first 3 spots. Three of my favorite films all included in my top 50 must see films list.

    Excellent one, Dan

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