Two of the funniest movies to come along in some time are out now. The third has its moments, but doesn't sustain. The three couldn’t be more different in style and substance, but they will all make you laugh - in very different ways, for very different reasons.
How could a story about an assistant funeral home director be funny? First, you cast Jack Black as the mortician. Then you give him a twitchy little mustache and a gay manner and have him become one of the leading citizens of Carthage, a small town in East Texas.
You add in Shirley McLaine (whose career now spans 52 years, starting with "The Apartment" in 1960) as the recently widowed Marjorie Nugent, the most hated woman in town, who co-opts Bernie as her companion and eventually mistreats him like a servant.
Their story is told through the eyes of the real citizens of Carthage, because this is remarkably a true story, originally told by Skip Hollandsworth in a long piece in Texas Monthly. And, as funny as Black is, it is the good people of Carthage, Texas who provide the real laughs. Their candor, their insights and, most of all, their colorful language are what really propel the movie.
You never quite know whether they are making it all up for the moviemakers, or even whether some of them are actors or townspeople. All is eventually revealed in a serious of twists and turns that is all the more amazing for being true.
At one point I was thinking that they had made Marjorie too nasty and that her abuse of Bernie was getting tedious. Ride it out, like I did, and you will be rewarded.
I’d seen the funny trailer and the ads for this, and as much as I love Seth McFarlane’s “Family Guy,” I didn’t see how you could sustain this story of a Teddy Bear that comes to life for a full feature movie.
Don’t worry. The beginning of the “Ted” story is told by a jaunty British voiceover that sounds like a Masterpiece Theater announcer that has dipped into the sherry. He tells of little John Bennet's Christmas wish that his new bear could really talk and be his friend. Miracle of miracles, Ted is alive the next morning. The Brit narrates Ted’s fame and shows a funny appearance on Johnny Carson. Johnny: “I thought you’d be taller.” Ted: “I thought you’d be funnier.” But, the announcer intones, like with many flash-in-the pan celebrities “after a while, nobody gives a s***.” The audience howls and rarely stops for the next 90 minutes
And then it’s Ted and John (Mark Wahlberg), both grown up, sitting in their apartment, talking about "chicks," swilling beer. What’s amazing is how easily you buy into the illusion. The magic of the technology lets you really believe John and his girl friend Lori (Mila Kounis) have a very close and crazy relationship with this walking, talking bear.
The story is driven by Lori's efforts to get Ted out of the apartment and for John to grow up. Later this develops into a silly kidnapping plot, involving a father and an extremely creepy son who are both obsessed with Ted. Fortunately, like on"Family Guy," the plot is superfluous. The fun of this movie is watching Ted and listening to his almost constant, satiric wisecracks.
I don't begin to understand the technology behind it all, but Wahlberg and Kounis do an amazing job talking to Ted, like he's any other "live" actor. Wahlberg again uses his Boston roots to best advantage, with the seamless accent and just the right degree of Beantown cluelessness.
But McFarlane is the star. He co-wrote it and is really the lead actor. His New England wise-ass routine is honed to perfection. Here’s my “Favorite Beatle” guarantee: You’ll laugh your ass off!
To Rome With Love, written and directed by Woody Allen
When I sat down in my seat at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, across the street from Lincoln Center, I thought, "Could there be a better place to watch a Woody Allen movie than right in the neighborhood that inspired so many of his films?" And for about half of this movie, I marveled at his genius.
A one-time stand-up comedian, the "Wood-man" returns to his roots and presents us with what is essentially sketch comedy with an ensemble cast, albeit an incredibly celebrated, talented one: Alison Pill, a rising star; Jesse Eisenberg of "Social Network," Ellen Page of "Juno" and "Inception," the ubiquitous Alec Baldwin and the sexy, lovely, talented (I have no perspective, or shame, here!) Penélope Cruz.
With all this star power, the funniest person in the movie is Woody. He comes to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis), a psychiatrist!, because his daughter (Pill) wants them to meet her fiancé. The fiancé's father (David Pasquesi) is a mortician (another one!) and sings incredibly beautiful opera, but only in the shower. Woody - surprise, surprise - is a former opera impresario. Hilarity follows.
Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) plays an ordinary Roman thrust into the spotlight of celebrity, allowing Woody, the writer, to make well-trod commentaries on celebrity. "He's famous for being famous."
Jack is an architecture student with a common dilemma. He starts to fall for the best friend (Page) of his girl friend (Greta Gerwig, most recently seen in Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress"). He meets John (Baldwin), who keeps popping up like a human Harvey, to warn him off.
Finally there is the young married couple who, through incrediby tangled circumstances, both sleep with other people on the first day of their honeymoon, but somehow live happily ever after. The best part of this scenario, at least for all you red-blooded American guys, is that Cruz is the hooker he sleeps with, and in every scene she is wearing a short, tight red dress that shows off her cleavage to its best advantage.
All four threads start with great comic potential and are initially pretty funny, but they all fatigue. By the end you don't really care what's happening to any of the characters because the same jokes get beaten into the ground.
If you are a Woody fan and want to keep up with his oeuvre, you should see it. But a warning: "Paris" conquers "Rome."