Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” is doing excellently and deservedly solid business on both sides of the pond this month, with its Boston-set tale of a soft, cuddly and very rude bear and his impact on Mark Wahlberg’s attempts to behave like a grown up in his relationship with long-term girlfriend Mila Kunis.
Why Boston-set? Well presumably it is part of the “write what you know” adage. MacFarlane is a born and bred New Englander (Englandian?), hailing originally from Connecticut, before studying in Rhode Island (where Family Guy is set). In fact, IMDb tells us that in 2001 MacFarlane missed a flight from Boston to Los Angeles due to a mix-up over flight times that would have abruptly ended his life – the aeroplane in question was hijacked and flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Following on from that slightly ominous introduction, Ted is far from the first creative enterprise to be set in or around Boston. West Side Story, Manhattan, The Apartment and Sweet Smell of Success all made much of New York City. LA Confidential, Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Dr. all used the look and feel of Los Angeles to compelling effect.
Boston, too, has had its fair share of films that play to its distinctiveness. Home to Harvard and MIT, Boston has long prided itself on its intellectual heritage, but let us not forget that this is where the pilgrims first set up shop and where the US revolution first built up its momentum. That distinctive and peculiar twang (pahk your cah in Hahvard Yahd) played up so much in The Departed is often the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Boston, but with everything from Cheers to, erm, Boston Legal being set there, it is woven through US film and television, as our six exhibits will demonstrate.
1. The Departed
Bostonian almost to the point of satire, The Departed finally bagged Martin Scorsese his long-merited Oscar, even if you could point to at least five or six of his films that would have been more deserving of his debut golden baldie. Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon didn’t have to work very hard with the accent, coming as they do from Boston originally. Everyone else slipped into the accent’s cadences with seemingly little trouble.
A reworking of acclaimed Honk Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed is undoubtedly compelling stuff, with Matt Damon’s police officer as mole for the Mob and Leo DiCaprio’s police officer as mole within the Mob looking for each other while trying not to get caught presenting us with a sensational analysis of identity and duty.
Wahlberg in particular seems to be having real fun here, his sweary, bullying, offensive turn rightly drawing attention and accolades. DiCaprio and Damon are both at the top of their respective games with a mixture of desperation, ferocity and duplicity laced throughout their compelling performances. Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga round out an absolutely top-drawer cast in a film with a terrific sense of the history and culture of Boston.
2. Good Will Hunting
Matt Damon again, writing (unless you believe what they say about William Goldman) and starring alongside long-time friend and fellow Bostonian Ben Affleck in this Oscar-winning tale of an emotionally troubled young man with a fathomless mathematical and intellectual capacity. After one run in with the law too many, Damon’s Will Hunting is assigned to an MIT professor who tries to unlock his academic potential while Robin Williams’ kind and insightful therapist attempts to get to the bottom of his emotional troubles.
As with all of the films that have made this list, Boston is essential to GWH’s story. In the shadow of these beacons of intellectual and academic achievement (Will gets together with Minnie Driver’s Harvard undergraduate) we meet blue collar workers and young drop-outs from the South Side who are just trying to get by. Ben Affleck’s character delivers a brilliantly heartfelt speech to Will towards the end, telling him to essentially grow up, stop blowing off all the opportunities he has to do something sensational with his life and make him proud by not being there the next time he comes to pick him up.
The contrast between the run down one-room apartments of the South Side and the illustrious grounds of Harvard serves as a canny visual representation of the gap that exists in Boston between those on their way up and those stuck at the bottom. A genuinely excellent film and as good as many of those involved have been at any time before or since.
3. Gone Baby Gone
Threads seem to abound between Boston-set films. Matt Damon in The Departed and Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck going from writing and starring in Good Will Hunting to directing this, his debut effort behind the camera. Affleck had been in the wilderness for a number of years running up to this. After the interesting Sum of All Fears, Changing Lanes and Daredevil came messes/misses like Paycheck, Gigli and Surviving Christmas. After correcting this slide with acclaimed work as George Reeves in Hollywoodland, Affleck turned his hand to directing and in no uncertain terms has found his niche.
Undoubtedly, Affleck cannot take all of the credit for the considerable success that Gone Baby Gone represents. His brother Casey, having laboured long as a supporting actor in everything from Good Will Hunting to the Ocean’s films, followed up his superb work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with this, his first genuine lead role and he delivers in spades. His slight build creates an impression of weakness and vulnerability which his character plays on and makes use of to get him the information and open doors that he seeks. As his partner in an investigation into the kidnapping of a little girl who may be better off away from her wildly dysfunctional home life, Michelle Monaghan is great too, though the exceptional script (adapted by Ben Affleck from Dennis Lehane’s novel) gives everyone a doozy of a “what would you do?” scenario to play with.
The background that Casey Affleck’s character has in the area where the story plays out and his knowledge of the principal characters involved all help infuse the story with a powerful sense of time and place within neighbourhoods that both Afflecks seem comfortably at home in. The way in which we are presented with streets on which characters and the actors seem to have grown up playing on all help to give the film a ring of authenticity that is hard to imagine if this had all unfolded on the streets of some other nameless city.