In this corner – the weekend’s number one film at the box office and Seth “Family Guy” MacFarlane’s first foray into film – Ted.
In the other corner – the critically acclaimed sleeper hit for the hipster arthouse set, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.
The first film I wanted to like a lot…but didn’t…while the second film I wanted to dislike a lot…but didn’t. Strangely they suffer from the same troubling underlying theme (the old more of the same bit), though one film is clearly better at overcoming that flaw than the other.
First up – Ted. It’s a simple sellable concept – boy wishes teddy bear could talk, wish comes true, teddy grows up into foul-mouthed pervert, hilarity ensues…right? Hilarity should be ensuing. Waiting….waiting…. Oh, wait, a fart joke! The movie starts out charmingly sarcastic enough, a kind of riff on those magical wish-fulfillment kids’ flicks from the 1980’s (that I hated) complete with Patrick Stewart narration. After the credits finally roll (featuring a pretty funny montage), MacFarlane attempts to translate all of his patented animated schtick to live-action complete with 1950’s-style music.
There’s a ton of asides and cutaways…that guess what…don’t work as well in live-action. There are pop-culture references galore…that guess what…come across as stale and dated. It’s all pretty much more of the same from MacFarlane, and some of the stuff is randomly hilarious (like the Flash Gordon bits), but he packages it inside the modern troupes of the comedy genre. Nowadays, mainstream comedies tend to be some form of gross-out bromance or run-of-the-mill romantic comedies that always end the same way – everyone stays together! What a joke! Ted, sadly enough, tries to be both as Mark Whalberg navigates through his dysfunctional relationship with his talking teddy bear and his banal and inexplicable relationship to the always smoking-hot Mila Kunis. It’s flimsy, predictable stuff…and I expected something cleverer from MacFarlane.
The height of the laziness might be the cutaway to an Airplane! send-up that itself was a send-up of another movie (from the disco era) nobody from this younger generation has probably ever watched. A lame spoof of a great spoof of a crappy film – could there be a lower form of comedy? There’s also a completely unfunny, creepy “kidnap” subplot that seems to only exist as a set-up to an admittedly hilarious Tyler Lautner jab at the end of the film. But was that painful set-up worth it? Will anybody in twenty years even remember who Tyler Lautner is? And therein lays the problem of comedy based on pop-culture references and gimmicks rather than on inherently funny and relatable situations, clever plots or dialogue.
Then on the flip side of Ted, we have Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom – a 1965 set film about pre-teen runaways on a New England isle populated by a scout troop and randomly deadpan adults. There’s nothing inherently funny here either as we get more of the same from Wes Anderson meaning static shots overstuffed with kitschy details, too much love for the styles of the 1960’s, and quirks for quirkiness’ sake. Normally (spare for Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums) this style becomes a tyrant over substance in an Anderson film (witness the insufferable Darjeeling Limited), but here, while there is nothing inherently funny, there is a “coming-of-age” thread through the story that is highly relatable although hardly original.
I’d be a fool not to admit the film has its charms – including, but not limited to, a cavalcade of precocious and well-directed children, Bill Murray at his most “quietly raging” deadpan, a droll Francis McDormand and a music score by Alexandre Desplat that is strung together along with works from Benjamin Britten and other classical composers. It all makes this the most watchable Wes Anderson film since The Royal Tenenbaums. But what might make it his best film to date (and please remember this is coming from someone who finds him annoyingly overrated) is that almost all of his little kitschy details and miniaturized mise-en-scene are in service of the story. Yes, it’s a clichéd star-crossed-lovers’ story (think of this as a romantic comedy for precocious children), but in all honesty, the story wouldn’t have been even remotely interesting if it weren’t for the Wes Anderson-ian details and stock treatment, and his normally well-worn details wouldn’t have been as interesting if it weren’t for his expert direction of the children in the cast who play amongst his silly – almost absurdist – sets and period knickknacks as if they are having the most serious of fun.
And maybe this should be Wes Anderson’s new niche – kids’ films for smart kids. Maybe I missed what might have been the start of a breakthrough for him with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a cleverly designed “stop-motion” animated kids’ film that bored me to tears. It would be fitting as Wes Anderson seems eternally stuck in the fantasies of his childhood. Much like MacFarlane, he’s a man who refuses to grow-up. So what better way to channel that than making films about kids…for smart kids…that adults could enjoy, too? Much like the scout troop eventually rallies around his hero in Moonrise Kingdom – then maybe all of his fans and haters alike would finally rally around him. It would be the ultimate revenge of the nerd…wouldn’t it?
So there you have it – Ted‘s box office success will likely mean more of the same crude absurdity from Seth MacFarlane. And Moonrise Kingdom seems poised for a run at Best Picture, meaning Wes Anderson isn’t going to think outside of his box anytime soon while the right people still think that box doesn’t stink.
I guess things could be worse. But when looking at these two successful films (measured by differing means of success, but success nonetheless), you have to wonder…is more of the same what we really want? Should we be rewarding these childish endeavors? I don’t know – I’ve always been someone who wanted a little more than that (as in the same) rather than more of the same. But maybe it’s unfair to expect anything more from precocious children like Seth MacFarlane and Wes Anderson. Shall we laugh at and applaud them anyways? We wouldn’t want them developing any kind of complex…now would we?
Written by David H. Schleicher
I actually think there are a great many laughs in Moonrise Kingdom, as in most of his films, but I’m a Wes Anderson fan. You mention that most of his work is stuffed with quirks for quirkiness sake. I see most of his filmmaking to have the magic of Tati as far as mise en scene goes, but with a more self-aware and melancholy tone that strikes me as very poignant and touching. His films are generally sad works disguised as comedies. There are often many sad and depressed characters and the deadpan comedy works wonders for me. To each his own though.
Jon – I always found Wes Anderson’s busy mise-en-scene to be a cover-up for that fact there really isn’t much there in terms of character. I almost always instantly forget his films. Moonrise Kingdom I did enjoy for the most part – but there really wasn’t much there. He captures what I consider to be an empty-headed melancholy and whimsy which can work in certain contexts (as it did here in a coming-of-age story) but is usually just tiring to watch.
Yes but the mise-en-scene is not a cover up— it actually defines the characters…it’s their accessories and obsessions and fashion etc that define them. That’s the point and I think you’re actually making it….it’s just that you don’t like it. I think this is terrifically fascinating and non-traditional to the point that I think it’s rather riveting and exciting filmmaking. We’re seeing the same thing and finding differences in the appreciation of it.
Jon – interesting….I think maybe you hit the nail on the head when you suggest Wes Anderson makes films about “things” and thus defines his characters that way. I guess I just don’t share that worldview that “things” define a person. I’d like to think we are much more complex than our “things.”
I don’t know….I know alot of people that define themselves by “things”. Not saying that’s the way we should be. I still think there is more here than you realize…..it’s just that Wes Anderson’s films talk in multiple languages. I saw a blog post recently where Anderson uses multiple artforms and modes of expression to tell the story…narrators, music, fashion, allusions, maps, letters, performance within performance, archetypes etc.
Here it is.
Interesting article, Jon. Thanks for sharing. It definitely speaks to the care with which Wes Anderson handles all of the elements of his films. I’m still not convinced it adds up to much though. I like how the film was described as a “memory of a fantasy” from childhood – sounds about right.