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Mark Wahlberg and an Animated Stuffed Bear in “Ted”

Seth MacFarlane’s Ted begins in Boston in the 1980s.  A young, friendless boy named John Bennet receives a stuffed bear one Christmas and, as a result of the wonder and magic of that holiday, brings the bear to life by wishing upon a shooting star.  The boy and the bear promise to be best friends for life.

 

Now, grown up but not quite mature, John Bennet (Mark Wahlberg) and his stuffed bear, whom he has named Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), live in an apartment with John’s girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis).  While Lori goes off to work at some nondescript but important job for which she wears a suit and gets hit on by her boss (Joel McHale), John chronically shows up late to work at a car rental and often ditches to smoke pot with Ted.  Years earlier, Ted achieved celebrity simply because he was a talking stuffed bear, but plunged into obscurity and, like one of the Coreys, assumed most of the traits of a frat boy.  Now, he and John sit around, get high, and incessantly make pop culture references.

 

If it seems like I’m suggesting that MacFarlane means to mock this sort of lifestyle by being ironic, I apologize.  That’s not what I meant.  MacFarlane only achieves that level of depth in the beginning, when the use of Christmas magic acts as a sort of tongue-in-cheek mode of humor by which MacFarlane mocks the trite plot device by using it.  Elsewhere, MacFarlane seems only to want to rattle off a disparate list of pop culture jokes and moments of shock humor, much like an episode of his television series Family Guy.  Some of the gags work, others don’t.  But in any case, I couldn’t help but get the sense that MacFarlane had ventured into film only to give himself another outlet for Family Guy humor.  In one scene, a drunken Ted sings vigorously into a karaoke machine playing Hootie and the Blowfish’s “I Only Wanna Be With You.”  While singing, Ted has his apartment audience in an uproar by mocking the way, as he exclaims, everybody sang in the 90s.  At this point, one seems not to hear Ted, but MacFarlane himself, laughing at his own jokes.

 

After John abandons Lori at an important business function to party and do blow with Ted and their childhood hero Sam Jones (80s Flash Gordon), Lori decides enough is enough and orders John and Ted out of the apartment and her life.  John is apparently devastated (though he had to know it was coming).  He immediately blames Ted for constantly dragging him into a deadbeat lifestyle.  At this point, we’re normally supposed to identify both with the heartbroken character and the object of his rage.  But there’s a problem here—we don’t empathize with John at all.  Though Ted is a misogynist, racist, and loser, we’re still able to like him because he is funny and also a stuffed animal.  John, however, is a real person, and we tend to be less forgiving of those.  Maybe if this film were animated (though the novelty of the living stuffed bear would be diminished), John would be able to carry the story.  And in animation, MacFarlane can utilize his style of humor—the irrelevant pop culture jokes and offensive humor that somehow offends no one—without any need for the emotional authenticity we naturally expect from real human beings.  Peter Griffin can be a useless sad sack and still be funny.  Mark Wahlberg cannot.

 

The main conflict posed by Lori’s growing discontent—best friend or girlfriend, and by extension boyhood or manhood—is complemented by a sub-plot involving a Buffalo Bill-esque lunatic (Giovanni Ribisi) who kidnaps Ted for his portly son.  There is some genuine excitement and suspense here, but also more of the same tired humor.  Both conflicts are resolved in a predictable and disappointing way.  Magic and wishes-upon-a-shooting-star win the day once more, and Lori decides (rather unbelievably) that having a nice boyfriend who lounges around with a degenerate stuffed animal is better than having no boyfriend at all.  But with this resolution, MacFarlane isn’t being ironic.

Jared Gilman in “Moonrise Kingdom”

It was the first time I’d been to the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, Michigan.  I was with a friend, and we’d both heard the Main Art was supposedly the best place in or around Detroit to see an independent film.  While waiting for the 7:00 o’clock showtime, I heard two middle-aged gentlemen discussing the movie they saw the week before (apparently a lot of moviegoers visit the Main Art weekly, as habit or as cultural obligation).  They were both ambivalent, wondering if it was pleasant warm-heartedness or kitsch they had found so charming in the movie.  However, one of them conclusively announced: “Well, it sure beats the hell out of Hollywood!”  The two then congratulated themselves with an uneasy amount of laughter.

I cannot rightly condemn modest self-congratulation, probably because I sometimes partake in its easily accessible but ultimately empty benefits.  So I made an effort not to tease their conversation, though I imagined it was the same conversation a good many people have when they talk about independent or art house movies.  Pauline Kael expressed a similar opinion when she wrote, “the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood ‘product,’ finding wish fulfillment in the form of easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism”  (Kael was known for her rapier wit, which for many readers made her the harshest critic working at the time).  But, as I said, I do sometimes congratulate myself, so I am inclined to give the two men a fair amount of leeway.  I must ask, what is one expected to talk about in a place like the Main Art?  At huge, impersonal multiplexes, most people just munch on their popcorn, text, or go to the bathroom and study the geometric patterns in the linoleum.  But the Main Art is more intimate; the audiences there become a unit, and for better or worse prefer to experience and interact with the films they see together, rather than merely consume them.  So these guys were just doing what the social context, in some way, demanded.  Had one of them delved into what was possibly the true root of his ambivalence toward the film—was it really kitsch?  And if so, why would it have been shown at the Main Art?—a more challenging and honest conversation would have taken place, something that would be too difficult for complete strangers.

Then the lights dimmed, and I abandoned the topic in anticipation of Wes Anderson’s latest film. 

 

Moonrise Kingdom takes place in the summer of 1965 on an island in New England called New Penzance, a setting that’s idyllic in its quaint beauty and in the fact that it doesn’t exist except in Anderson’s wonderful diegesis.  It is, in a sense, the prototype for what most of us might imagine a picturesque New England island would look like in 1965.  We enter the home of the Bishops and meet young Suzy (Kara Hayward), a precocious twelve-year-old wearing a perpetual frown, and Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), two lawyers on the island.  We discover that Suzy’s parents have had particular trouble disciplining their daughter.  As we watch, however, we deduce that this is not Suzy’s fault.  She’s merely perceptive—it’s clear that her parents’ marriage is failing.  Indeed, Suzy has something of an attitude, but her persistent reading of storybooks and her detachment from school and family suggest that she just doesn’t like or want the life of her parents.  One day, Suzy discovers on top of the fridge a pamphlet titled “Coping With the Very Troubled Child” and, I suppose right then and there, her discontent becomes absolute.

We also meet Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan, who has fled from Camp Ivanhoe, the base of the local Khaki Scout troop inhabited by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and Sam’s fellow khaki scouts.  Sam was the least liked by all the boys in the troop, admits Scout Master Warden to his tape-recorder, which acts as a confessional.  Many of the adults in the film, like Mr. and Mrs. Bishop and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), lead quietly sad lives and require such confessionals.  What’s more, we get the sense that most of the kids on the island know it, and act accordingly.  In Anderson’s films, children tend to be precocious, but in an idiosyncratic, Andersonian way, not like some Cosby kid.

The conflict of the film centers on Sam and Suzy, two twelve-year-olds in the summer during which their precociousness is in full form—they understand adults and all of their shortcomings, but have not yet become adults themselves.  After running away from his troop, Sam has a rendez-vous with Suzy in a field near her house.  With a mutual sense of detachment from the society in New Penzance and a truly powerful amount of intimacy and honesty, the two venture out into the uncharted regions of the island, no doubt to make a place for themselves.  The adults discover this and, a few days before a record-breaking storm, set out to find the two runaways.

What follows is a film imbued with Anderson’s enchanting and redemptive style and (can I say it?) real beauty.  It’s unique, even to Anderson.  The film seems to spring out of the minds of the children it depicts.  There is the very geometric way the camera moves in the Bishop house, cataloguing each room as would a child looking into a dollhouse.  Then there’s Camp Ivanhoe, where the town’s Khaki Scouts have constructed a tree house at the very top of a tree.  When we view this spectacle, the flattened image that Anderson has produced with his camera makes it look like a page from a children’s book.  When Scout Master Ward, the only adult in the camp, humorously questions one of the scouts about the dangerous height of the construction, the boy shrugs.  Why wouldn’t it be at the top of a tree, he seems to say, it’s a tree house!

Anderson’s film is like the tree house.  It hovers above the world, slightly detached from our rigid conceptions of realism and plausibility.  But it nevertheless succeeds in captivating us.

Indeed, it’s easy to identify the fairytale-like qualities of an Anderson film.  It’s the author’s style—his singular vision that approaches magical realism but contains a vague, melancholic sense of lament for the world.  Maybe that’s why Anderson’s movies don’t seem to be about our own universe.  He takes us to the universe of his imagination, which never provides a full escape from the world but almost always redeems it.

And if you were wondering, the film gets its name from a small cove Sam and Suzy discover, name, and settle in during their journey.  What takes place there is one of the most disarmingly honest scenes I’ve viewed in a theatre.  Sam and Suzy pitch camp, go swimming, and in their own way confess their love for each other.  But their love isn’t that of a foolish child.  It’s real, unashamed, and changes everyone in New Penzance.

And it certainly gave those two men something to talk about.