Grin and bear it

Is blokey, pre­dictable – and an ab­so­lute hoot, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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

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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.

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