By Carl Kozlowski
Far too many modern American films feel like they’re made by committee, bringing together a bunch of pre-tested story elements and viewer-approved actors in the hopes that safe, proven ideas will help a movie score at the box office. It’s all too rare for a director to get a real shot at shooting a script they wrote themselves, a sad fact that all too often leaves viewers stuck with films that are devoid of real passion and unique points of view.
Thankfully, there are several such films in theaters right now, and all three are worth watching for different reasons. Ted is a good-natured yet silly and off-the-wall R-rated comedy, which marks the feature filmmaking debut of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, while To Rome with Love continues the Europe-inspired, late-career hot streak of Woody Allen, and, best of all, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World marks the stunning debut of the bold new filmmaker Lorene Scofaria.
Ted follows the frequently stoned misadventures of a guy named John (Mark Wahlberg) and his lifelong best friend, a teddy bear named Ted who came to life after John wished on a star when he was 8 years old. Now John is 35 and has been dating his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) for four years, while she’s got a high-powered job and he’s spinning his wheels working at a car-rental office. Ted is still living with him as well and has grown up to be a hilarious politically incorrect, extremely foul-mouthed and constantly stoned bad influence on John’s attempts to grow up.
Much of Ted consists of one ridiculous situation after another, in which Ted and John get into wild partying situations or in which Ted struggles to adapt to the real world on his own. It’s often very funny, and while it’s certainly not appropriate to take children to (I mean it!), it’s hard to imagine any adults getting very offended by its highly off-color nature because, well, it’s centered on the misadventures of a talking teddy bear. Sometimes you have to sit back and just enjoy a silly laugh and this movie has plenty of them.
Wahlberg and Kunis do a strong job of taking patently ridiculous situations seriously enough to seem genuinely invested in the goings-on and believing in Ted as if he were truly alive and communicating with them. As Ted’s voice, MacFarlane creates a lovably gruff yet utterly outrageous and surprisingly three-dimensional character. Combined with his confidently zippy sense of pacing and utter lack of fear in poking fun at every imaginable ethnic group and movie star, Ted overcomes its lack of a compelling antagonist and occasionally repetitive jokes to be an amiably winning time at the theater.
Meanwhile, Woody Allen has been drawing career-rejuvenating inspiration from the capitals of Europe for much of the past decade, shooting Match Point and Scoop in England, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in Spain and Midnight in Paris in France before taking on Italy in his new To Rome with Love. Intertwining the stories of several seemingly disparate lives crossing paths amid romantically farcical twists and turns, it’s got all the hallmarks of Allen’s great comedies—including an ace all-star cast and the cleverest dialogue in showbiz—while also continuing the upbeat spirit that Europe brings out of him.
It’s perhaps best to leave all the surprises as just that—surprises—so I’ll spare you the intricate and smart plot details and just encourage viewers who love smart comedy, fun performances and eye-catching scenery to catch this one on the big screen. For my money, it’s even better than his Oscar-winning blockbuster Midnight in Paris, because that film too often felt like a highbrow version of Night at the Museum with its near-constant procession of famous literary figures being trotted out for five or 10 minutes of jokes apiece. Rome is more surprising, and in its underlying exploration of the impact of modern fame, a more relevant experience as well.
Starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as two normal, decent people who find their friends becoming debauched after the world receives notice that in exactly three weeks an asteroid will collide with the planet and kill everything on it, the first half of Seeking has a darkly comic tone as it shows suburbanites talking about having orgies, threesomes and ingesting mass quantities of drugs as they wait out the end.
But Carell and Knightley each have a deeper reason to play out their lives—she wants to make it home to her family in England and he wants her to help him find the high school sweetheart who asked to take him back in the earth’s final days. And as they engage in a funny/sad road trip to achieve their goals, Scofaria deftly flips the script halfway through and guides viewers on a profound and highly romantic journey that should make all who watch it think hard about the choices they would make at the end of the world and the people with whom they would choose to share it.
Seeking bombed at the box office this past weekend, hurt by a hopeless marketing campaign that makes the film look like a broad zombie comedy rather than a thought-provoking romance that will leave viewers feeling the pain and beauty of an all-too-short true romantic connection. Knightley in particular deserves to win the Oscar for her magnificent performance, but everyone involved in this film is a winner.