Grin and bear it
Is blokey, predictable – and an absolute hoot, writes Donald Clarke
IN ONE SENSE (and in just one sense) Seth MacFarlane resembles the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. You always know what you are going to get, but you are usually happy enough to enjoy the familiarity. One created metaphorically resonant slabs of engulfing colour. The other does jokes about Star Wars and vomit.
When Family Guy, MacFarlane’s first TV series, was launched in 1999, the impresario received some flak for making incursions into The Simpsons’ backyard. Isn’t Pete Griffin, the animated sitcom’s pater familias, just Homer with glasses? With the release of American Dad ( Family Guy with a CIA agent) and The Cleveland Show ( Family Guy with African Americans), MacFarlane seemed happy to rip off his own second-hand sensibility.
All of which is to prepare Seth
fans for the less-than-startling news that Ted, his first featurelength picture, doesn’t stray too far from the template. By now, you will have heard the rather delicious concept: stoned Beantown bloke shares obscenities with a sentient teddy bear. It’s got living breathing movie stars in it: Mark Wahlberg’s the dude; MacFarlane regular Mila Kunis plays his sensible girlfriend.
On the surface, it looks as if MacFarlane is stretching his wings and breaking free. The tone, sensibilities and comic rhythms are, however, reassuringly familiar. The ursine anti-hero, voiced by Seth, is a smaller version of Peter Griffin. Wahlberg is a younger version of Peter Griffin. Kunis is a slightly funkier version of the longsuffering wives in both Family Guy and American Guy (who are, of course, versions of one another). Let’s just dismiss the thing and move on. Shall we?
Unfortunately for MacFarlane’s many detractors, Ted turns out to be an absolute hoot. The notion of putting foul words into the mouth of a cuddly toy is not a new one. But there’s just enough mileage in the gag to keep the movie spluttering through an energetic series of pop-cultural references and broadly staged orgies of profanity. Given how reluctant MacFarlane is to test himself, it positively pains us to admit that few films have triggered more bellylaughs this year.
We begin in a suburban home in the 1980s. It is Christmas and young Johnny Bennett has received a teddy bear as a gift. Desperate for company, he makes a wish to some vague deity and the stuffed beast magically gains the power of speech. You hardly need to be told that Ted uses that gift to breathe the foulest vulgarities known to anglophone man.
As is often the case in MacFarlane’s world, the tone is pitched somewhere between parody and heightened reality. Patrick Stewart sounds both pompous and peeved as he offers an arch narration to the opening fairytale. Johnny reacts like a boy in a fable: he explodes with joy when Ted speaks. His parents, however, behave as real people might: they scream in terror.
The film-makers seek to accommodate Ted in the real world by supposing that, “like Corey Feldman”, his initial notoriety wears thin as fickle consumers become blasé. “Oh, that talking bear from the 1980s”. We can buy that.
It’s best not to think too much about the sexual politics in SethWorld. Ted and Johnny, who smoke dope, booze and swear with mad abandon, are depicted as less connected and less empathetic than the female character. She is, however, a bore. Yes, Mila Kunis plays yet another of those women who hang around contemporary comedies waiting to disapprove of the heroes’ amusing bad behaviour. She argues for a life that is more responsible but less interesting.
Oh well. None of this takes the shine off a near-miraculous stream of top quality nark-friendly gags. Wahlberg’s little-boy vulnerability makes something poignant of a grown-up who can’t quite imagine life beyond the couch. Ted’s blend of frat-boy dissolution and borderline malevolence remains unsettling throughout.
There’s obviously something of Seth MacFarlane in Johnny. He can’t see any reason to move beyond the safe confines of his stoner front-room. But heck, if the work, for all its compromises, remains this funny, why should he? CHUNG CHUN-TAO (Deanie Ip) has worked as a maid for the Leung family for 60 years. She now looks after older son Roger (Andy Lau) in Hong Kong; the rest of the family have emigrated to San Francisco. Roger, a film producer, commutes between Hong Kong and Beijing, meeting noted Hong Kong film-makers (Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung as themselves) along the way.
Returning home from the lengthy commute, Roger finds that his beloved “amah” has had a stroke. The altruistic domestic, concerned that one stroke will only lead to more, decides to retire and move into one of Kowloon’s crowded old folks’ homes. She makes friends among staff and fellow patients but soon starts to fade.
Director Ann Hui’s career began as one of the leading lights (and few female directors) of the Hong Kong New Wave. Her films have always thrived on intergenerational relations and the tensions between tradition and modernity.
In this spirit, Roger is seldom as callous or neglectful as the ungrateful youngsters of Tokyo Story. Indeed, he dotes on the old lady but is in no position to give up his life and work to tend to her as she has tended to him. A Simple Life does not judge him harshly but unfolds, instead, as a heartbreaking, extended goodbye.
Hui’s interest in small moments and realism could seldom be mistaken for British kitchen sink miserabilism, despite Yu Lik-wa’s honest, unadorned cinematography. Her milieu is too contemplative and understanding to allow A Simple Life to play as outright tragedy or as a showboating tearjerker. Her depiction of the care home celebrates the elderly. Her implied social critique never harangues.
The casting of the wonderful Lau (House of Flying Daggers) and his real-life granny, Deanie Ip, adds another dimension to the emotional impact, as does the knowledge that Hui’s screenplay is inspired by her producer Roger MH Lee’s relationship with his late housekeeper.
In keeping with the title and the heroine, A Simple Life is a straightforward and unassuming gem. No wonder the cast and crew cleaned up at last September’s Venice festival and this year’s Asian Film Awards. Don’t expect anything as shallow as Paris and Nicole.