This week we get a little break from spectacle-driven blockbusters (don’t worry, kids, Spider-man is less than a week away!) in favor of a collection of character-driven movies. Granted, it’s the summer so one of those character tales involves a pot-smoking teddy bear, one involves male stripping, and the other is a piece of crap. Still, it’s a change of pace in the summer months and at least only one of the new releases is a turd. That’s sadly all too rare.
The Good: Ted
So the time has finally come. Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane takes a crack at that whole “movie” thing with Ted. The movie starts out like an '80s schmaltz fest about a young boy named John who wishes that his little teddy bear would come to life and be his best friend. This being a movie, that happens and the cutesy walking Disney character becomes not only a family fixture, but a TV celebrity.
Fast-forward a few decades and now John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (the voice and motion capture work of Seth MacFarlane) are a pair of stoners who spend all of their time watching bad movies, eating snacks, and generally getting fucked up. John has a girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) now, though, and she gets tired of the slacker bear, eventually saying he has to move out after an incident involving three hookers and a giant poop (yeah, this ain’t highbrow stuff). So the little bear does and Ted/John have to deal with the pain of being separated for the first time.
Essentially, the setup for Ted is a stoner-makes-good comedy that could have easily been designed for Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. The difference is that the Rogen role is played by Wahlberg as a man far too old to be playing with toys and Hill’s role is a CGI teddy bear. That’s just enough to make the premise feel fresh, particularly when run through the MacFarlane comedy spin cycle that includes an endless array of vulgarity and non sequitur gags hitting on everything from Flash Gordon to 9/11 (at one point there’s even a joke that references the Saturday Night Fever parody in Airplane!, which is about three or four more meta layers deeper than should be expected from this type of studio comedy). There’s a reason why MacFarlane has three animated series running on television right now — the man knows funny and Ted is filled with it. When his Masshole-accented Ted and the gooey, childlike, innocent version of Mark Wahlberg are lazing around and cracking wise, the joke count is as high as an episode of Family Guy, which is no easy task to do consistently over 90 minutes.
Unfortunately, while Ted shows off MacFarlane’s considerable comedy chops as writer, director, and voice actor, it also puts his weaknesses on display. The guy is great at coming up with masturbation jokes for a children’s toy, but when it comes time to tell a story he’s never been that interested. Ted is dripping with misplaced sentimentality between the boy, his toy, and his girlfriend that never meshes with the anarchistic laughs, while also featuring an awkward and forced thriller subplot with Giovanni Ribisi there purely to facilitate a climactic chase scene. The story is essentially meaningless and the stabs at emotion completely trite (MacFarlane is no Judd Apatow). However, that’s been true of Family Guy for years; the only difference here is that a cheesy emotional episode wrap-up takes only 30 seconds away from a 22-minute cartoon, while in a movie that material goes on much longer and is all the more irritating for it.
So Seth MacFarlane isn’t much of a storyteller. The good news is that he’s still fucking hilarious and since Ted is an inconsequential comedy, the fact that those laughs hit as consistently and hard is really all that matters. Ted is not destined to become a new comedy classic, but it will make high college kids happy for many years to come. If MacFarlane can stumble into a movie concept like Airplane!, Dumb & Dumber, or Anchorman where the idiotic plot is mocked along with everything else, he could make one hell of a big screen comedy. Until then, Ted will fill the void for audiences missing their 90 minutes of weekly MacFarlane FOX cartoons this summer.
The Bad: People Like Us
Few movies have a more inappropriate title than People Like Us. Let me assure you that none of he soap opera clichés who walk across the screen in this film are even remotely like you, or anyone in the real world for that matter. Chris Pine stars as a fast-talking business type who is required to come home for his father’s funeral. Turns out he didn’t get along with Pops and is dismayed to learn that his inheritance is a vinyl collection rather than the cash he needs to pay off his debts.
Well, he does get a secret bag of $150K, but is instructed to give it to a woman named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) who turns out to be a half-sister Pine never knew he had. Bit of a weird one and instead of Pine telling her who he is, he starts up a strange relationship with Frankie and her inevitably precocious son. They almost become a twisted family unit before reality finally hits and Pine’s mother (Michelle Pfeiffer, whose performance is the best part of the movie) has to tearfully explain why she split up the half-siblings.
Eeek! How this movie ever got financed by a studio instead of falling into TV movie land is a mystery. There’s not a shred of relatable human emotion here, nor are the characters exaggerated enough to work as comedy either. Instead it’s just dull melodrama played out by actors who are better than the material. Even the few fleeting elements that seem like they could be interesting (like the way Pine turns himself into an almost incestuous father figure for Banks and the kid or Pfeiffer’s big secret) are never fully explored, ignored in favor of more empty “good times” montages and weepy monologues.
Frankly, the movie is a bit of a disaster, but at least it should instantly disappear in the midst of a movie season dedicated to explosions and superheroes. Expect to see this thing playing on weekday afternoon TV in a couple months, but even then don’t watch it. Surely something more intellectually nourishing like Jerry Springer will be on.
The Stripper: Magic Mike
When it was announced that Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh would make a movie about the world of male stripping loosely based on the life of star Channing Tatum, most people (including myself) assumed it was a joke. After all, how could the man who put asses in seats with the tongue-in-cheek chic of Ocean’s Eleven and confounded viewers with brilliant arty side projects like Schizopolis possibly have any interest in a movie about wannabe Chippendales starring one of Hollywood’s blandest stars?
Well, somehow it happened and real surprise isn’t just that it got made, but that it's actually pretty good. Tatum keeps allowing sheds of personality to slip into his films (most notably 21 Jump Street) and delivers one of his more rounded performances here, while Soderbergh seems to have a good time trying to understand and playfully mock this weirdo world. It ain’t a masterpiece and who knows what kind of audience it will attract, but Magic Mike is still dramatically better than it could have been and the trailers suggest.
Tatum stars as Mike (I know, shocker!), a 30-year-old male stripper and desperate entrepreneur who runs a variety of side gigs from building custom furniture to working construction when he isn’t shaking his dangling bits in the face of screaming middle-aged women. He meets the 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at one of his construction jobs and sees something of himself in the college dropout with no ambitions beyond getting drunk enough to feel content to sleep on his sister’s couch. So Tatum invites him into the wild male stripping world led by Matthew McConaughey’s club owner Dallas (who is filled with philosophies, all of which appear to involve a perpetually shirtless existence). Adam falls into the world easily while Mike starts to tire of it, struggles to pull together a legitimate job, and falls for Adam’s beautiful, no-nonsense sis Brooke (Cody Horn). As always happens in these sorts of stories, the laughter must turn to tears, but at least with Soderbergh in charge that’s done more delicately than you’d expect.
As usual, Soderbergh acts as his own cinematographer and gives the film the locked off and detached aesthetic he’s been toying with for the last few years. The film is essentially fluff though and aside from the visuals he doesn’t pretend otherwise. Soderbergh revels in the absurd comedy inherent in the material, particularly in McConaughey, who practically delivers a self-mocking parody. Tatum can seem lost when playing a cardboard action lead, but give him a semi-idiotic manslut goofball like Mike and he can be quite a charming and entertaining screen presence. Everyone else falls into the deadpan “best acting is no acting” approach. Fair enough — no one needs to see a wild and melodramatic male stripper move. A deadpan comedy with enough insight for moments of self-loathing and darkness is fine.
Magic Mike is far from a masterpiece, but Soderbergh and Tatum (who also produced and worked on the script) made probably the best possible film about male strippers. How many people will actually go see the thing is a reasonable question, but at least one decent character study will slip out of Hollywood this summer. It’s a shame Soderbergh is retiring; he’s one of the few people who can who can actually get character-driven movies financed anymore and if he can make something this interesting out of such limited material, imagine what he could be doing if he was actually allowed to make whatever he wanted.