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Overcoming arrested adolescence at the movies

“Ted”
Directed (and co-written) by Seth MacFarlane

Two weeks ago, we were presented with a character who grew up in Boston, became famous as a child for unlikely reasons, and who grew up into an obnoxious, broadly accented, substance abusing, painful embarrassment to those who ought to be nearest and dearest.  And now we have another – but with a key difference.

Then it was Adam Sandler who single-handedly managed to stink up what might possibly have been a moderately funny, albeit inherently crass, story (“That’s My Boy”) about a kid who impregnated his teacher and then squandered the fame, fortune, and parental relationship that ensued.   

This time around it’s a walking, talking teddy bear (creatively named Ted) who comes to life after eight year old John Bennett receives him for Christmas and wishes that he might become a real-life best friend.  The key difference being that the teddy bear is quantum leaps funnier – not just because of better writing and Seth MacFarlane’s experienced voice acting, but also because the fake teddy bear appears to have a more expressive range than Adam Sandler. 

Mark Wahlberg, also not generally noted for dramatic range, plays the adult John who’s never outgrown his best (thunder) buddy Ted.  But Wahlberg, like this week’s other major lead actor Channing Tatum (see below) does fine when he’s not overly stretched or expected to play against type – and they both seem to have recognized their own respective strengths and weaknesses in that regard. 

“Ted” starts amusingly enough, helped by some offensive narration from Patrick Stewart, with a wonderful scene that plays against the typical fairy tale discovery of a miraculous occurrence.  And as John and Ted both age, they remain equally emotionally stunted, sustaining the same friendship that made perfect sense when John was 8 but which makes less sense at 35.  In this transition, the film makes two interesting choices by having Ted and his abilities be openly known to the world (so we’re never hampered by cumbersome secrets) and by having Ted age in his language and temperament, just as John does, but showing his advancing years by becoming a little threadbare (pun intended).

However, Ted is no longer John’s only friend – he’s been dating Lori (Mila Kunis) for four years and for some reason best left unconsidered, Ted’s presence is only now starting to truly grate on her.  It’s an obviously odd threesome that initially seems like it might not quite work, with some forced dialog that sounds awkward rather than funny.  I’m not sure if it simply gets better a few minutes after introducing us to the adult relationships or if it just takes us a few minutes to roll with the premise, but it soon becomes quite consistently hilarious.  It also avoids the common flaw of many high concept comedies by shifting direction at some point rather than relying on finding new ways to offend, something Sandler could stand to learn. 

Clearly, a foul-mouthed, pot smoking, adult teddy bear isn’t the most common of movie characters but the plot is really very familiar at heart.  It’s the story of best buddies whose friendship changes when one of them meets the girl of his dreams and they can longer hang out all the time.  That it works as well as it does isn’t just an outcome of the intentionally foul jokes and equal opportunity offensiveness of John and Ted, but also because of the muffled sincerity of the relationship between John and Lori, which in turn benefits from the easy going chemistry between Wahlberg and Kunis.  In short, there’s a love story here that will keep some moviegoers happy while their own beer-swilling, farting dates laugh loudly at the crazy antics – and they might even recognize a few of their own Teds.

“Magic Mike”
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

A couple of weeks before “That’s My Boy” lowered comedic standards, we were treated to an equally unspectacular action movie that started out with an aimless and unsuccessful young guy, drifting from job to job, and relying on the generosity of his older sibling.  That may be the only structural similarity between “Battleship” and “Magic Mike,” but along with the movies already discussed, they follow a similar theme of arrested development and poor decision making skills in young males – the modern day slacker antihero.

“Magic Mike” is the movie billed as a being based on star Channing Tatum’s own past as a male stripper and occasional construction worker, growing up in the not-as-glamorous-as-Miami city of Tampa, Florida.  Tatum plays Mike, an experienced stripper/dancer who has several side ventures but who really yearns to make a living as an artist, with his own line of specialty furniture.  He meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is more the sibling-reliant slacker of the story than Mike is (at least at this moment in time), on a roofing job and drags him along into his other late-night life.  There Adam also meets Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the sleazy dance club owner, and several other regular performers including the aging Tarzan (played by ex-wrestler Kevin Nash) who has trouble keeping up with the demanding routine(s). 

Naturally there’s a love interest and Mike is drawn to Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) who isn’t exactly thrilled with the new developments in her brother’s life – and who gets to utter the classic “you’d better take care of him!” (paraphrased) line to Mike.

But what elevates this above a simple buddy story of male strippers is the set of temporally displaced parallel characters and the multi-faceted character study they represent.  Mike isn’t the only Tatum-esque character on the screen.  Adam dropped out of college and lost a football scholarship in the process, another parallel to Tatum’s own life – he’s essentially the younger Mike, finding easy financial success in a field that takes some basic talent but which requires no great thought, dedication, or leap of faith.  Similarly, it’s easy to see Dallas as the person Mike might become if he sticks around the club world a few more years, and perhaps even Tarzan as what he might have to look forward to if he keeps it up even longer.

“Magic Mike” is a story about finding and living your own dream, not the life that somebody else might temporarily find dreamy.  It fits with other movies like (the much better) “Requiem for a Dream” as an indictment of taking the easy way out rather than making the tougher, more rewarding decisions.  For Mike, the world of “adult” dancing isn’t the adult choice, any more than hanging out with an adult-mouthed teddy bear is the adult choice for John Bennett in “Ted.”  Both need to grow up while deciding who and what they want to be ‘when they grow up.’  And in that sense, the message of both movies is far more meaningful than the subject matter might initially suggest (which shouldn’t come as a complete surprise from either director).


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