This is a weird weekend in movies, folks. One new release about male strippers, another about a foul-mouthed teddy bear, and both in the same late June weekend. Two R-rated movies competing against each other in the season when studios are typically competing for the wallets of kids and teens on their summer break. To be fair, however, the weekend wasn't supposed to have gone this way. This was going to be the weekend when GI Joe: Retaliation hit multiplexes (the film had a Super Bowl spot and everything!), until the film was postponed at the last minute about a month ago. Ostensibly, the delay was to give the film more time for 3D post-conversion. Rumor has it, however, that the delay was actually to reshoot and re-edit the film, giving a larger part to rising star Channing Tatum. Of course, I'm sure that the notoriously bad domestic reception of Battleship didn't help, either.
Anyway, this weekend had a newly-open slot in primetime summer real estate. Universal was lucky enough to claim it, quickly maneuvering Ted to be released a couple of weeks early. So rather than getting a weekend of two Channing Tatum movies, we get a weekend of two adult movies. I'll let you decide for yourselves if this was a good trade.
In light of this confluence (and absolutely not because life has been crazy and I've fallen behind schedule), I've decided to try something I've never before attempted on my blog: A two-fer. I saw both movies today, back-to-back, so that I may compare and contrast them in the same entry. Turns out it was easier than I thought, since the two movies have more in common than one might think. Let's go through it point by point, starting with...
Both of these movies have very simple, very predictable premises. You will surely find something in the next few paragraphs that sounds vaguely familiar.
In Magic Mike, we have Adam -- otherwise known as "The Kid" -- played by Alex Pettyfer. He's mentored by the eponymous lead character (Channing Tatum), and gets in over his head with drugs and vice on his way to being one of the greatest male strippers in Tampa. Meanwhile, Mike is saving all of those one-dollar bills to start his own business in custom furniture.
Both of these arcs are quite predictable, but they're positioned in such a way that they contrast with each other. Adam finds his calling just as Mike starts to become disillusioned with the industry. The problem is that this contrast doesn't really become clear until the film starts winding down. The pacing is such that we spend more time watching Adam's development than Mike's, particularly during the first half, which means that some of Mike's most pivotal scenes seem to come out of nowhere (the bank scene comes to mind). Basically, the two storylines don't quite mesh as they should. It feels like we're watching two decent stories, instead of one great story or two wonderfully balanced stories.
Compare that to Ted, which is quite solidly focused on one story. Though this movie has more than its share of plot threads, this is unquestionably the story of John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), his girlfriend of four years (Laurie, played by frequent McFarlane collaborator Mila Kunis), and the teddy bear that he wished to life as a child (Ted, voiced and motion-captured by co-writer/co-producer Seth McFarlane, who also makes his live-action directing debut).
The basic thrust of the movie is that John and Ted are both cases in arrested development. They're both little more than grade-schoolers with access to alcohol and pot. Laurie is surprisingly good at accepting their juvenile behavior, until Ted gets so far out of control that he's forced to move out. From there, the movie is basically about John's attempts to keep hold of the woman and the stuffed animal that he loves, all while struggling to grow into a more mature person in his own right.
The big problem with this plot is that it's incredibly predictable. Even more so than the plot of Magic Mike. I had honestly tuned out from this film at the one-hour mark, because I already knew precisely how the rest of the story would play out. Even worse, the climax takes a dramatic turn that falls completely flat. This self-aware and unapologetically crude parody of a kids' film does not earn the right to ask its audience for tears, especially when the crisis resolves itself in such a cheap and lazy manner.
The Mature Content:
We may as well start with the obvious: Yes, there is a ton of male nudity in Magic Mike. Naked chests, naked asses, and even a couple hints of naked junk (though those could have been faked). Still, it's my belief that a true movie geek should not be afraid of male nudity in movies. And anyway, rampant female nudity is so commonplace in Hollywood films that a movie like this one to balance the scales should be welcomed.
As for the movie's striptease sequences... well, I'll put it to you this way: I'm a twenty-something single male living in a city renowned for its robust strip club industry and world-class pole dancers. Suffice it to say that I've been to my share of strip clubs. And even if I've never seen a male strip show, the basic principles should be the same for nude revues of both sexes: Ridiculously attractive and talented dancers making suggestive movements while taking off skimpy and flashy bits of clothing. Based solely on those criteria, I'd like to think that I know a good strip show when I see one. And this movie features some good ones. Say what you will about Channing Tatum as an actor, but there's no denying the guy can dance. Additionally, the sequences were all very well-choreographed and nicely shot, though I have to say that the movie is set in the best-lit strip club I've ever seen.
However, if you're of the straight male persuasion, don't worry. The film offers two protracted topless scenes for your enjoyment. One of them is the long-awaited nude debut of Olivia Munn, who shows an eyeful in the film's opening minutes. It's almost like the film was making a peace offering to all the straight men in the audience up front.
The plot also features drug use, but it's nothing I haven't seen done better. Strictly in terms of how the movie portrays drug use and its effects on the characters, even Boogie Nights did a better job.
As for Ted, it also features nudity and drugs. In fact, as far as dirty jokes go, I'd say that Seth McFarlane threw in everything but the mildew-encrusted kitchen sink. In addition to countless jokes about marijuana, sex, and anatomy, there are racist jokes against every major ethnic group on the planet and jibes to offend most major religions as well. Is it tasteless? Sure. Cheap? Maybe. But even the most offensive jokes are so outrageous, so creative, and delivered with such perfect comedic timing that there's really no response except to laugh.
Going off on a tangent, Ted is also very big on pop culture jokes. A surprising amount of celebrities appear to make fun of themselves, and the 1980 Flash Gordon film gets at least 15 minutes of screen time in some form or another. The movie even goes so far as to recreate an entire scene from Airplane! verbatim, in such a way that I don't know if it counts as a reference or a cheat.
Basically, Ted's approach to humor is to make fun of absolutely everything within reach and see what sticks. By some combination of skill and luck, the jokes are delivered in such a way that even the crassest and most mean-spirited humor tends to hit more often than miss. Often precisely because it's so crass and mean-spirited.
Quite surprisingly, both of these movies have a shocking amount in common when it comes to themes. At heart, both movies are about their protagonists learning to grow as people. Both movies are about growing up, letting go, and taking responsibility. Both sets of protagonists also struggle to figure out what they want in life and who really matters to them.
For Mike, that means coping with the fact that stripping is a young man's game and he's not getting any younger. For Adam, that means finding his way through the strip club industry and figuring out if it's really for him. Then of course, there's the matter of how each of them manage their relationships with the other characters (more on them later), choosing which ones to trust.
These themes are far more prominent for John and Ted, as they've spent their entire lives getting stoned together. They're both total fuckups, and they've never taken steps to fix that until Laurie calls them out on it. Finally, they have to take responsibility for their actions and help each other to be more mature, if such a thing is even possible.
The Bad Influences:
Both of these movies are named after well-intentioned characters who lead their friends into squalor.
Ted is the character who's always luring John back to his hard-partying ways, but it's hard to completely hate Ted for it. After all, the character is so funny and his parties are such blasts that it's easy to see why the weak of willpower would be pulled toward him. The film also points out that of course Ted doesn't know the concept of responsibility because... well, he's a teddy bear. Stuffed animals aren't generally trusted with much. Then again, stuffed animals don't generally have minds of their own, so there's that.
It's also worth noting that because Ted grew up with John, he knows precisely which buttons to push. No matter how firmly John is determined to walk the straight and narrow, Ted will always know exactly what it takes to lead John astray. The relationship between John and Ted is one of the film's strongest elements, due in no small part to the interplay between Wahlberg and McFarlane. The stellar effects work on Ted himself helps a lot as well.
The relationship between Mike and Adam, however, is very different. For one thing, they had never even met until the start of the movie, so of course Mike doesn't know a thing about Adam, much less how to control him. So basically, Mike brings Adam into the world of male strippers and tries to teach him well. He makes it his mission to protect Adam, but the latter is such a loose cannon that of course Mike fails. This leads to the question of how much blame Mike should take on his protege's behalf, and how far in debt Adam is to his benefactor.
As for Channing Tatum himself, I'll gladly admit that he's come a long way as an actor. Granted, he won't be winning an Oscar anytime soon, and it's not like he had anywhere to go except up, but still. Tatum is incredibly charming in the role, so easy-going and quick-witted that it's easy to see how he could seduce people of both sexes. In spite of everything, he's an easy guy to like. It also helps that Tatum is more than willing to make an idiot of himself, and he does a fine job of selling the character's development where it counts.
Both movies follow protagonists who are easily affected by the aforementioned bad influences. And they are both unlikeable.
To be fair, at least Mark Wahlberg is surprisingly good at comedy, and he seems unusually comfortable acting opposite a special effect. That said, I steadily grew to dislike John. Not even Wahlberg's good performance and the character's good intentions could hide the fact that Johnny is a spineless idiot incapable of independent action or thought. Everything he does, he does because either Ted or Laurie pushed him into it in some way.
Likewise, I hated Adam almost immediately, for reasons that had nothing to do with Alex Pettyfer. When we first meet the guy, he's unemployed and turning down job offers because the boss is a dick, he won't wear a tie, the job is boring, etc. The guy is totally destitute, he's bumming car rides from other people, he's sleeping on his sister's couch, and he's throwing away perfectly good job opportunities for entirely petty reasons. One chronically unemployed man to another, fuck this guy.
The Love Interest:
In both movies, there's a love interest on hand to serve as an impartial observer, calling the protagonists out on their bullshit.
Magic Mike offers two such characters, but one of them eventually proves to be fool's gold. Mike goes through a great deal of the film pining for Joanne (Olivia Munn), though it's obvious that she's not interested in a long-term relationship. At a guess, I'd assume that Joanne is there to provide the illusion of a loving relationship, as Mike does when he's on the stage. That's purely conjecture, however, since Joanne is given very little to make an impression out of. That and Munn has not a shred of acting talent.
No, the true love interest in this film is Adam's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn, daughter of former WB president and current Disney chairman Alan Horn). She's extremely skittish about the whole "male stripping" thing, but not for any puritanical reason. Brooke is simply concerned for her brother's well-being, and she's so uptight that she doesn't understand the appeal for anyone on either side of the stage. That said, Brooke is a very smart person with a deep affection for her brother and a grudging soft spot for Mike's charms. So when she has something to say about the way Adam and Mike are living, they're damn well going to listen.
One of the great things about Brooke is that the film never tries to bring her down to the level of her male costars. She's got Mike's number, and the movie never tries to pretend that it's the other way around. This puts her way above Laurie, in my opinion.
When we first meet Laurie in Ted, we see that she's probably the only character in the movie with her head screwed on right. She's got quite a ribald sense of humor (far more than I realized Mila Kunis had), but at the same time, she's very much a woman. She has her needs, she protests in passive-aggressive ways, and she knows when Ted has crossed a line. I completely sympathized with Laurie, and I found her to be far more reasonable than either of her two costars.
But then the film ends with Laurie embracing her inner child. Bullshit.
The whole point of Laurie's character was that she had found a way to balance her love life with her work life and her recreation. In every way, she had attained the happy medium between juvenile behavior and mature behavior that the protagonists had aspired to throughout the film. Yet the film ends with the argument that Laurie needed to embrace her inner child more (in a way that hugely detracts from John's effect on the plot, I might add), which is inexcusable to me.
The Side Characters:
Both films have side characters who are thoroughly and completely useless. Ted was easily the worse offender, as that movie had to tack on a voice-over epilogue just to tie up loose character arcs (though Patrick Stewart's narration was hilarious throughout).
For example, we meet John's supervisor and his coworkers, as well as the people who work with Laurie. All of these characters could have been cut from the film with no ill consequences. John's supervisor (played by Matt Walsh) mentions that he's set for a promotion to corporate, leaving John next in line for the manager position, and absolutely nothing comes of it.
Then there's the matter of Giovanni Ribisi, who plays a creepy stalker kind of character. I get what the filmmakers were going for with this character, setting him up as a kind of anti-John. He's a guy who desperately needed a friend like Ted, but never got one. It's actually a sort of intriguing question: In a world where stuffed animals can come to life with a wish, why was there only one? What made John so special that he got the only living teddy bear? Of course, I'm probably overthinking that point. In truth, Ribisi isn't given the screen time or the material to make his character anything other than a two-dimensional psychopath. Futhermore, his character arc is never given a conclusion, even in the voice-over epilogue.
Still, I will give the movie one supporting character in its favor. I'm referring to Laurie's boss, the standard egocentric jerk who intends to steal Laurie away from John. And who did they get to play him? Joel McHale. Host of "The Soup" and lead actor of "Community." Joel fricking McHale, cast as a womanizing self-absorbed douchebag. With casting that awesomely perfect, the only disappointment is that he didn't get more screen time.
Turning it over to Magic Mike, we have Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, and Adam Rodriguez. They play Magic Mike's fellow strippers, and they are all interchangeable. Nash stood out because of his sheer size, but that was it. I couldn't tell you a thing about any of these characters. Matt Bomer was a particularly huge waste, because I've seen his work on "White Collar." The guy can sing, he can dance, he can act, and he's absurdly good-looking. I have no idea why he hasn't found more success in movies, but I can only hope he'll fare better once he's freed from his "White Collar" commitments.
I should also mention Matthew McConaughey. He plays Dallas, the owner/MC/stripping coach/stripper of Xquisite. I'll admit that McConaughey is as good a dancer as any of his colleagues, and he turns in an entertaining performance. Watching him chew scenery while teaching Adam how to strip was certainly good for a few laughs. McConaughey is well on his way toward proving himself as a capable actor, and I wish him all the best.
That said, getting a handle on Dallas as a character was very difficult. I learned absolutely nothing about this character, and I could never quite figure out if he was supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy. Hell, Adam at one point asks what Dallas is like as a person, and Mike replies "Dallas is just Dallas, man." Thanks a pantload for clearing that up, Mike.
I should also point out writer/producer Reid Carolin, who briefly appears as Brooke's boyfriend. He would have done just as much good on the cutting room floor. His screen time should have gone to Gabriel Iglesias, a very funny stand-up comic who appears as the club DJ. If the character had been better established in the first half, it would have greatly benefited his story thread in the second half.
Aside from the sterling effects that brought Ted to life, there's really nothing remarkable about the visuals in Ted. The visuals in Magic Mike, however, deserve comment.
Pretty much every scene in this movie is filmed in a drab, pale shade of yellow. The only exceptions are the club scenes, which are extremely bright and colorful. Though I can appreciate the contrast, far more scenes were set outside the club than in. So much of the movie was presented with that awful yellow filter that it got very painful very quickly.
Magic Mike and Ted both suffer from predictable plotting and unnecessary characters, but they're both still enjoyable. It helps a great deal that both movies have stellar casts throughout (with a couple of exceptions here and there), and the actors all do fine jobs with what they're given. I should also note that MacFarlane turns in a serviceable live-action directing debut, and Soderbergh is still one of the more interesting and experimental directors currently working.
(Side note: Channing Tatum once expressed a desire to have Nicolas Winding Refn direct. Now there's a movie I'd love to have seen!)
Magic Mike offers some very charming characters, and the dance sequences are all phenomenal. As for Ted, pretty much the only reason to see that movie is the comedy. It's very much an equal-opportunity offender, yet the jokes in that film are so shocking, so bold, and delivered at such a rapid-fire pace that I couldn't help laughing.
Both of these movies are good, but they're not the "must-see cinema," "go support them now!" kind of good. I certainly wouldn't stop anyone from seeing either of them in the theater (particularly Magic Mike), but waiting for a rental would probably be the best use of your time and money in either case.