It seems everywhere you look there’s another movie set in Boston, usually starring one of our favorite sons: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg… We’re proud to have our city star alongside the actors in these movies, and especially proud of the hard-knocks portrail Boston gets in popular media. Movies like The Town, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, and The Departed emphasize the raw grittiness and character of Boston’s neighborhoods. Even Ted, takes advantage of Wahlberg’s character’s modest upbringing as a contrast to his girlfriend (Mila Kunis), a South End advertising executive.
Why, then, do Affleck and Wahlberg – both famously Bostonian – insist on featuring driving so prominently in their films? Instead of embracing our anti-Los Angeles, walkable, transit-serviced urban core, these Boston filmmakers succumb to the same car-dependent plot gimmicks as movies set in any generic city.
We’ll grant that bank robbers are likely to use a van to make their getaway. But it felt like half the scenes in The Town were set around vehicles. The high-speed chase through the North End is absurd and patently Hollywood. When Affleck takes Rebecca Hall on a date, they take their car. And when his character marches into his brother’s house telling him he needs his help, that they’re going to beat up some guys, and that he can’t ever talk about it, the brother’s response is: “Who’s car are we going to take?”
Still, Affleck’s transgressions are minor compared with Wahlberg’s in Ted. We may be guilty of overthinking this movie about a talking stuffed bear, but it’s difficult to ignore the film’s reliance on driving here. Setting aside for a moment the casual depiction of buzzed and high driving in several scenes, or the no-consequence distracted driving car crash, the characters in this movie drive everywhere! Both Wahlberg and Kunis, who live in the South End and work in Boston, drive to work every day. At one point, the couple drive from their home to the Gaslight Brasserie, which would be a 10-minute walk.
Only slightly less egregious, Kunis gets angry at her date after a Norah Jones concert at the Hatch Shell and defiantly declines to ride home in his car with her. The date is incredulous at the thought – how will she get home? But don’t worry, she’ll just take a cab. It’s out of the question that she could find some other way to get to her brownstone a mere mile away.
So what’s the problem? For one, it undermines authenticity. These cinematic depictions of our city are something we’re proud of and we’d prefer they get it right.
But more important is the perception it creates. This reliance on driving in even the most walkable of US cities simultaneously reflects and perpetuates an auto-oriented narrative of our lives. It is apparently inconceivable to these filmmakers that a guy would take a girl on a date using the T. It underscores the notion that the default way to get from home to a restaurant is to drive – even if that restaurant is only a few blocks away. And it reinforces the idea that driving drunk, high, or distracted is comedic and not that big a deal.
This is not a new phenomenon. Characters in Seinfeld - set in New York City of all places – drove with regularity. No doubt some of the appeal of driving in film is that it affords the director a chance to set a scene with both characters facing the camera. Scenes on couches have the same effect. But this presents a great opportunity for other modes of transportation. Characters can sit side-by-side on buses and trains. Or they can walk shoulder-to-shoulder. With a little creativity, this can even work with bicycles:
Over time, we expect Los Angelinos will come to understand how people in other parts of the country actually live and get around. But until then, it’s up to the actors and directors who so proudly come from cities like ours to correct lazy writing and directing. Here’s hoping Ted 2 gets it right.