The Idea of You Explores a Middle-Aged Woman’s Fantasy of Being Noticed

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Idea of You.

These are difficult times for romance. Dating apps are down. First dates are down. People don’t seem interested in relationships anymore. Even marriage is down. The most successful movie last year (Dune) was about the guy not getting the girl. Where does this leave romantic comedies, that great source of fantasy that has inspired so many people on Hinge? How will people find each other without romantic stories to dream about?

Romance is not accepting this situation passively. (Sorry.) Just as movies about lone superheroes have evolved into movies about teams of superheroes, and movies about a scary monster have transformed into Godzilla vs Kong-style showdowns, romantic comedies have had to enhance the fantasy, not just by having Hugh Grant play a lover and a fighter in The Fall Guy. They’ve gone so far as to borrow a technique from their less reputable cousins in porn, and break some deep taboos.

And I’m not just referring to the recent films exploring love stories between older women and younger men. These have come in various forms, from the darkly funny The Lost Daughter to the erotic thriller and very French Last Summer. Neither of those movies has much wish fulfillment, which is kind of like having a superhero movie where people solve interplanetary crises through negotiation.

No, the real deep taboo-breaking is being done by The Idea of You, which is being heavily marketed as an age-gap romance but is actually much more than that. It truly belongs in the genre of middle-aged-lady fantasy (MALF) movies. If there were a Comic-Con for slightly overwhelmed mid-career women—a Discontentment-Con, if you will—The Idea of You would have a main-stage panel. MALF is the genre that asks: if Thor can have a hammer that always comes back and a bunch of cool superhero friends and a fulfilling job saving the universe, can’t a 40-year-old woman get everything she wants in a movie too? And The Idea of You answers that if she is Solène Marchand, the coolest single mom in all of the Western seaboard, she can and does.

Solène is an art dealer who represents female artists and lives in a lovely but not too flashy craftsman cottage with a fireplace and a piano in supernatural harmony with her teenage daughter Izzy. She has a cool but modest career that does not look as boring or cutthroat as art-dealing actually is, and a cluster of extremely loyal and supportive friends. She has mastered the feminine arts of cooking and wearing lingerie but in a human and relatable way; neither her fridge nor her boobs are holding up as she had hoped they might.

Seven minutes into the movie we meet the middle-aged lady’s nemesis, her ex, who does something vaguely lucrative, lives somewhere overly rectangular, and sleeps with someone youngish. Despite apparently having everything a person could want, he lets his ex-wife and daughter down—again! Solène saves the day, abandoning her plans to go camping alone, of which she is totally capable, and volunteering to take her daughter and two friends to Coachella, like any totally chill hip hero mom would.

Sometimes people who consistently put themselves last, the movie seems to say, who put their hopes and dreams on hold for their families, or use their considerable talents in the service of the greater good, can emerge on top. So it is when Solène, through an adorable misunderstanding of music-festival signage, stumbles into the trailer of a boy-band member about a decade and half her junior and insists on using his bathroom. Instead of calling security, the young demigod immediately sees something in our heroine that nobody else has. He then does what all young men do when they have an older woman in their sights: he buys all the art in her gallery! He relishes her homemade sandwiches! Instead of requests for nudes, he texts her an invitation to tour Europe with him!

In one scene, Solène drives through a crowd of paparazzi and phone-wielding teens with Hayes Campbell, the young star, hiding in the reclined seat next to her. Nobody even notices her. In case the viewer misses it, the movie keeps reminding us: this is a woman whom nobody sees, except the star of the hottest boy band in the world. Nobody can take their eyes off him, and he can’t take his eyes—or his hands, or several other body parts—off her.

This is the ultimate fantasy—not attracting a young man with chiseled cheekbones, perfect teeth, and the ability to wear a thick cardigan on a very hot day without even a bead of sweat—but actually being noticed. When the couple inevitably gets photographed together, everyone has to recalibrate who Solène really is. Some are jealous, some are appalled. (The ever-game Anne Hathaway gets to play the woman who endures this judgment-fest—a role that is probably not much of a stretch.) Most discomfited of all is her slimy ex, now left by his young lover and with nothing but his glassy lair to snuggle up in at night.

While the movie is crystal clear that Solène is need of nothing, she does in the end get everything. Her superpowers—authenticity, talent, loyalty, kindness—allow her to exact revenge on her foe and emerge from her period of struggle having it all and more—an unleashed libido, a booming career, the admiration of her child, and lots and lots of steamy sex with the world’s most desired man. Who’s also, the viewer is informed, a feminist.

Of course, the duo hit some age- and fame- and schedule- and mean-girl-related roadblocks and have to go their separate ways for a while. Years later, however, they meet again, and the viewer can tell they have both matured; she no longer has bangs and he has a solo career. Maybe this time it will work. Good things, the movie notes, come with age. Or so a 40-plus-year-old woman can dream.