This week finds the release of Seth McFarlane’s Ted in movie houses across the country. The movie focuses on a man played by Mark Wahlberg who, in his youth, wished life upon his cherished teddy bear during the event of a falling star. The wish came true. Years later, Wahlberg’s character has to juggle adult life with his flesh and blood life partner Mila Kunis and his felt and fun-fur partner Ted (voiced by McFarlane).
It is one of many films Hollywood has given us involving the creaky adage, “Be careful of what you wish for.” Whether Ted proves to be as sturdy as these other examples is something left best to time and the box office, but it is safe to say that you already know most of these films by heart.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is without question the grandfather of this type of storytelling, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) suffers hard times in his little town of Bedford Falls; a lot of it at the hands of the town’s richest man, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore Jr.) who would like nothing better than to see Bailey fail and leave the savings and loan he is a majority partner in. Bailey’s marriage is suffering, his faith in humanity failing, and his faith in himself has long since vanished. One night, at the peak of his despair, he contemplates suicide but is interrupted by Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence seems like a hapless bumbler at first, but comes to reveal he is George’s guardian angel. Upon this realization, George makes Clarence grant him one wish – that he’d never been born. Be careful what you wish for.
The rest of the film moves from quaint yet harrowing melodrama concerning unrealized dreams and the weight of failures into, quite literally, the twilight zone. George sees his world as a stranger to those he loved (and some he didn’t), and recognizes what a profound effect he had on them, even in the depth of his own depression.
The movie has become a Christmastime tradition, thanks in part to the holiday setting, but it was mostly a supernatural pep talk for the nation. The U.S. had just suffered through the Great Depression and just as George Bailey was being hit hard in the wallet by cruel fate and cruel people, this concept of becoming a have-not was still fresh in the mind of the audience. So too were the consequences of World War II, illustrated by the character of George Bailey’s brother, whom George saved from drowning as a child. The implication is that had George never been born, he wouldn’t have saved his brother who would go on to be a war hero and save many lives overseas – likewise, had America not persevered through its darkest financial hours, it would not have been around to be such a force for the Allies and, quite possibly, Hitler and the Nazis would have succeeded.
Seldom are these points hammered particularly hard, and most of the credit for that goes to director Frank Capra. Basing the film off the short story “The Greatest Gift,” written by Phillip Van Doren Stern, Capra inserts clearly delineated moments to make the points, but then backs off and lets the viewer take them the rest of the way. The film never says that, had George Bailey never been born, all the world would be ruled by a fascist dictatorship, but it certainly suggests this is one of several possible outcomes.
Bailey’s sweetheart and later wife Mary (Donna Reed) might never have known a good man in her days, and might have fallen into the traps of settling, or might have sold herself to get through the crisis years when the money was gone. This is a rather sexist position, suggesting that without George’s strong presence, she could not have stood up for herself and would have slid into disrepute, or been an unloved old maid, but that is a nuance that wasn’t typical of movies at that time. We’re still in the age of the “little woman,” after all.
The movie is beloved because it states that, even in the loneliest of lives, there is value. We’re here for a reason, not just because of an accident of passion and fertilization. It is a message that everyone longs to hear every now and then.
Another typical example of “be careful what you wish for,” arrives in the 1980s with a spate of “younger/older” body-switch flicks. This arrives with a multitude of variants, from 18 Again (1988) with Charlie Schlatter and his grandfather George Burns flipping the switch; Like Father, Like Son (1987) with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron doing the dad/kid swap; and Vice Versa (1988) with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage doing likewise. These all stem from the original body-switch flick Freaky Friday, a Disney film from 1976 finding young Jodie Foster and movie mom Barbara Harris doing the existential tango. The key to all of these examples is the very common belief that the “other” always has it better, and life right now is just about as bad as it could be. That makes these somewhat like It’s A Wonderful Life except that in each of these examples it’s not a question of “to be or not to be,” but of, “I deserve better than you.”
This is an altogether selfish, yet thoroughly human, thought process. The human condition is never satisfied. In the summer it is too hot and we wish for snow. In the winter it is too cold, and we pray for a heatwave. The neighbors have more than we do. The kids’ bullies can’t possibly be harsher than the boss. Mom and Dad get to go anywhere they want, free from constraint. Yeah, right.
Another take on young/old comes in two forms, one very concrete and the other abstract. Big (1988) was the film that, while Tom Hanks was already a known name, arguably made him a star. In it, the young Josh Baskin wishes on a fortune telling machine at Coney Island that he could be all grown up. Overnight, his wish comes true and he comes to learn over the course of the film that adult life is just as complicated as youth, and skipping chapters to get to the “good stuff” excludes the reader from a lot of other good stuff, all the while leaving them unprepared and unskilled in handling the bad. There are noteworthy scenes in the movie, some of which have become near iconic. I’m thinking of Hanks and Robert Loggia’s floor keyboard duet in the middle of mega toystore F.A.O. Schwartz. Another scene is the seduction of Josh, finally, by Elizabeth Perkins who throughout the film had been cold to this interloper who storms through her world, succeeding almost by accident. Do I buy that Hanks is playing a young man in the body of an older man, finally experiencing intimacy with a woman after having thought and talked about it with his schoolage friend for so long? Not really. But the scene is carried on in a manner that causes the viewer to believe something is there, that Perkins’ Susan has truly fallen for Josh’s childlike innocence. Where it falls down is that Hanks’ Josh is childlike in the scene, where he should actually be a child (and let’s suspend disbelief for a moment to not devolve into the textual point she’s allowing a child to touch her breast).
No less an age-switch film, but one based not on a wish or dream or deal with the devil, but with the very pursuit of youth, is Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985). A group of senior men occasionally break free from the old folks’ home to take a swim in the disused pool on the other side of the woods. It relaxes their muscles, but not much more. Then, on one of their swimmer’s break-ins, they see things sitting at the bottom of the pool. Weird things, like eggs. The reasonable would say, “I’m not getting in there with those, no way.” Movie logic is not logic.
The eggs are, in fact, cocoons that hold the inhabitants of an alien world and their very presence restores youth and vigor to the guys as they swim in the water. They go from creaky and stiff to doing cannonballs into the drink. The effects linger on as all the men find their libido has perked up too. Reflecting on the presence of an erection, Wilfred Brimley’s character notes, “A cat couldn’t scratch it.”
There are consequences to be reckoned with. With age comes wisdom but with age suspended comes willful amnesia. Hume Cronyn’s character proves to be unfaithful to his wife (played by real-life wife Jessica Tandy). Don Ameche’s thrill seeking leaves behind his girlfriend played by Gwen Verdon, and all the men come to learn they are somewhat addicted to the mysterious power from their fountain of youth. Be careful what you wish for. It might not make you another person, but it might make you a jerk.
The pitfalls of them movie are both subtle and huge. The subtle ones are when these grandfathers slip into too-easy visual puns, like the hip geriatrics in an Adam Sandler flick. I’m thinking of Don Ameche’s breakdancing scene. It is fun, provided you don’t think about it too much, but it smacks of the obvious bait for the audience at that time and, somehow, feels untrue to the character. You believe he would show off, but you’d also think that through his stubbornness he’d show off his own way – plus, it is annoyingly obvious most of the time that it’s not Don Ameche busting those fly moves.
The other side of it is that (spoilers, I guess) the oldsters stay addicted to the drug. Rather than staying with their families and living their lives, they run off with the aliens who have come to rescue their own, the beings inside the cocoons. It is, in part, a fable about death and the hope for an afterlife where youth is eternal; but it distressingly recalls the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where responsibility is deferred to getting on board the magic spaceship and running away from your family, your problems, your mortality, and your ordinariness.
Yet I do like Cocoon, even with its flaws. The actors make you believe so much that is unbelievable, and they’re having a load of fun doing it. It’s not hard to see why. Seldom, if ever, do Hollywood’s senior citizens get to play anything other than doddering sight-gags. In this film, they had their own “careful what you wish for” moment, only in this case what they got was some of the best roles they’d had in years, and they earned the respect of an audience that had passed them by as professionals.
The best scene, and the best performance, in the film is the least discussed. Jack Gilford, known mostly for comic roles, played one of the group that rejected the pool and its mystic powers, instead tending to his wife (played by Herta Ware) who may just be suffering dementia, or may be afflicted with Alzheimers. For his steadfastness, his neighbors get wild times while he just gets older. One night he finds his wife is not moving and, in a state of grief and panic, he finds the youthful strength to gather her up in his arms, run through the woods, and put her into the pool. It doesn’t work.
The leader of the alien rescue team, played by Brian Dennehey, informs the man that the water doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It just helps restore the vigor of the life already present. In that scene, Gilford blows away every other performance in a movie filled with strong performances. By the end of the film, having accepted his friends’ decisions not as playing god but as just choosing the course of their own lives, Gilford’s character tells them he’s staying. He’s going to accept the road he has been given and, in a sense, has doomed himself to the slow deconstruction of advanced age. It’s a sentiment that, sure, is highly manipulative in the film and was meant to be so, but Jack Gilford took the ball up and dunked it, all-net, no rim.
I’ve little doubt that Ted won’t have the same sense of profundity, either intrinsic or presumed, but it adds to the subcategory that affects our daily lives the most; that of wishing for that which we cannot have and maybe should not. It isn’t always easy to cope with the relationship that never comes to be, the opportunity we lose and cannot get back, or the good intention negatively perceived, but we’ll always be a sucker for a story that plays the “what if” scenario out.