I spent several hours this weekend watching adults act like children and children take brave risks in the name of love.
I was at the movies.
The movies were Seth MacFarlane’s Ted and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Seemingly, the two have nothing in common: We have a funny, crude comedy in which Mark Wahlberg’s character John Bennett makes a wish that his teddy bear were real, and of course, that’s exactly what happens. Cut to John at 35, who’s at a dead-end job at a rental car company with a girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) of four years. He is stunted emotionally and psychologically because he cannot move past or let go of his teddy-bear-cum-roommate, who keeps him stuck in a childish, self-serving, pot-smoking rut.
Moonrise Kingdom, on the other hand, feels as if it were created in miniature–crafted, painted, dreamed up, intricate and artful as a tiny dollhouse world peopled by caricatures where the adults are clueless and children speak with the cadence, sobriety, and world weariness of 45-year-olds. (Reviewers use words like “whimsical” and “idiosyncratic” to make this point.) Sam meets Suzy, picking her out of a lineup of girls in bird costumes backstage at a school play. One year later, they make a secret pact to run away together.
Both have romance at their core: In Ted, John desperately loves Lori, but can’t quite make the jump to become a man and commit to making a life with her (though he makes lots of promises). In Moonrise, 12-year-old Sam makes the bold decision to leave his scout troop (representative of structured society with its requisite rules and regs) and meet his lover Suzy in a field and run away together, making camp, catching fish and cooking it, reading adolescent novels out loud, sharing dreams and disappointments, and sometimes kissing.
The irony here is that in Ted, John’s struggle to be a man requires that he let something go, essentially swap an old comfort (Ted) for a new one (Lori). He has to get rid of one to have the other. In Moonrise, Sam’s struggle to be a man requires that he leave the clock-work predictability of camp and strike out on his own.
Both films make their own cultural commentary: One could be construed as a statement on the feminization of modern men who can’t shake their adolescence (or you could say it’s just a funny movie with lots of fart jokes, and those who argue that I’m overstating it may be dodging the persistence of their own adolescence). Consider Jeff Who Lives at Home, in which the 30-year-old protagonist loiters endlessly and aimlessly in his mother’s basement. Is it a surprise these movies are popular now? They must resonate somewhere. We wouldn’t think they were funny and real if they weren’t, well, funny and real.
The other commentary, as portrayed in Moonrise, is that you’re never too young to know what you want and go after it, as unpopular and unexpected a choice that might be–and that real love is worth bucking the rules for. Sam doesn’t hem and haw like John; he’s committed to his decision from the very start.
And while I certainly laughed out loud at Ted many times (I dare you to try not to), I felt far more uplifted by Moonrise. It’s the difference between chugging a beer and tasting a strange cocktail. With one, you know how you’ll feel and have an idea of how it’ll go down; with the other, you’re not sure, but it’s an intriguing libation.
The inspiring message for me was not that a 35-year-old man can, after much prodding, release his vice-like grip on his toys long enough to propose to a woman who’s halfway out the door. (Um, that happens every day.) It was the kids who see their own difficult lives and their families’ failings with zero sentimentality (Suzy’s parents only relate as lawyers and not as lovers; Sam’s are dead and his foster home has disowned him), and are willing to leave it behind. They aren’t one bit afraid of facing the dark or the thunder (unlike Ted’s John Bennett, who still needs his thunder buddy), and remain unflappable as the chaos unfolds around them, becoming more focused and determined as the stakes are raised.
The consistent underlying message of course is that love makes you brave and turns you into an adult–and though I take issue with the hackneyed Hollywood emphasis on that One Perfect Love as the be-all, end-all, we should know by now that this is a cinema standard.
What’s far more compelling to me is not how it ends but the ways in which the characters get there. I know I see my own life as more than just swapping one comfort for another. And I’d take a (grown-up) Sam over John any day of the week–I imagine most women agree with me….but then why are so many women settling for the men who cling to comfort and are terrorized by storms? Good question. But they are.
Who doesn’t want to singled out by a determined, strong-willed, capable man who knows what he wants and goes for it? Who, like a dutiful khaki scout, is prepared for all kinds of inclement weather and rising tides? The lesson here, it seems, is that being a real man–a real adult, for that matter–seems less about what you give up than what you go after.