Shortly into Seth MacFarlane’s new film, Ted, Mila Kunis’s character returns to the apartment she shares with her 35-year-old boyfriend to find their third roommate, a foul-mouthed teddy bear, partying with four hookers, one of whom has pooped on her carpet. That’s it, she decides. The boyfriend has to choose between her and his stuffed bear. He has to grow up.
While the circumstances may be unique (though, really, who hasn’t dated a guy who lives with an oversexed, pot-smoking childhood toy?), Kunis is retracing familiar territory with the role. In each of her three most recent romantic comedies, the actress plays the girl who, through a delicate combination of brashness and vulnerability, helps her leading man grow a pair and get his life together—and love both her and himself for it.
In 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kunis inspires Jason Segel’s character to stop putzing around with the idea of producing a Dracula puppet musical and actually put on the show. (She’s drawn, apparently, to men who play with toys.) In last year’s Friends With Benefits, she convinces Justin Timberlake’s character that he won’t “shit the bed” if he accepts a fancy new job at a men’s magazine. And in Ted, she helps Mark Wahlberg’s character become a little less codependent on his fuzzy best friend.
As cultural surveyors fret about the future of American men, from Hanna Rosin’s forthcoming book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, to the staggering male unemployment numbers that birthed the “man-cession” to studies revealing men’s anxiety about shifting gender roles, Kunis is helping to define what may be a new, refreshingly likable female archetype: the Man-Up Dream Girl.
Sure, comedies about adult women attempting to make it work with man-children have dominated the box office for more than a decade (see Judd Apatow), but few of the films’ leading ladies have pulled off this love story as convincingly as Kunis. Unlike her cinematic predecessors—those “striver” women who must contort their clichéd uptight selves to make a relationship with a “slacker” boyfriend seem plausible, as New Yorker film critic David Denby labeled these couples—Kunis doesn’t have to martyr herself to save her man.
And unlike Manic Pixie Dream Girls, those ethereal, one-dimensional muses who writers repeatedly cast as emotionally stunted men’s fantasy girlfriends, Kunis’s characters feel like real women. For those unfamiliar with the trope, the A.V. Club’s Nathin Rabin famously defined these nymphs, who exist “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Think Natalie Portman in Garden State, or Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. Instead of helping men connect with their inner-child, Kunis helps them find their inner man.
“She puts out a vibe that she takes no shit,” says Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nick Stoller. If she were cast as the lead in 500 Days of Summer, he jokes, she’d be like, “Here’s the deal. I don’t like you.” The story would be over before it begins.
For many American men stuck in a state of “pre-adulthood,” it’s not so much a lack of desire to grow up as ambivalence about the best way forward, says Kay Hymowitz, author of the book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. Without obvious role models or a clear script for what it means to be a man today, many harbor the fantasy that “a beautiful girl will come along and help them figure out how to do it.”
Yes, pointing out that men fantasize about Kunis is like saying they fantasize about playing pro basketball, but the reasons for her appeal may be surprisingly good news for both sexes. She’s both direct and easy-going. She can hang and talk like a bro, and get angry without sounding preachy—unlike, say, Katherine Heigl’s character in Knocked Up or Jennifer Aniston’s character in The Break-Up, who seem almost maternal in their endeavors. And she’s effortlessly funny.
Which may help to explain Kunis’s ascent. In her late teens, she won a cult following with her role on That ‘70s Show and her voice work on Family Guy. But it wasn’t until her big-screen breakout in Forgetting Sarah Marshall that she rose to A-list status in Hollywood. Her persona has only been boosted by recent reports that she saved a man’s life during a violent seizure, and last year, jumped to the defense of Timberlake during a press conference—in fluent Russian. She scored points when she accepted a Marine’s invite to accompany him to last year's Marine Corp Ball. She's also gotten press for dating Macaulay Culkin and, allegedly, Ashton Kutcher, but her off-screen choices arguably just make her seem more human.
Of course, her almost inhuman good looks—she’s borderline cartoonish in her wide-eyed, tiny-bodied appearance—may also have something to do with her appeal. Last year, Kunis, now 28, dramatically boosted magazine sales when she graced a glossy's cover, according to WWD. (Interestingly, actual man-child Justin Bieber was cover kryptonite.) Earlier this year, she became the new face of Dior. And perhaps equally telling, the same smart, menschy guys who once gushed about Natalie Portman have all but stopped buzzing about the new mom, replacing her with Kunis. (Don’t tell Nina Sayers!)
In his GQ cover story on Kunis last year, David Marchese ended the interview by, yes, asking her out. (She said no.) As for why men are drawn to her, he says, “She just doesn’t seem like a pushover. She seems like she wouldn’t take any guff, or that she would give as much as she would take.”
As it were, much of the guff Kunis gives in her roles as a Man-Up Dream Girl revolves around teasing her love interests for being girls—which, to be sure, feminists might protest. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, when Segel’s character shows up at the Hawaii resort where she works with a broken heart and no place to stay, she hooks him up with a room, then teases him later for sobbing like a woman. When they go on a hike and he’s afraid to follow her lead and jump off a cliff into the ocean, she yells, “I can see your vagina!” (Ironic, since he goes full-frontal earlier in the movie.) In the end, though, she helps him get out of his own way and become the man he wants to be.
In Friends With Benefits, as her and Timberlake’s characters navigate their pals-who-sleep-together relationship, she both makes herself vulnerable and sets him straight when he disappoints her. And in a strangely familiar scene, when the two go on a hike and Timberlake’s character is afraid to follow her lead and jump a fence to check out the Hollywood sign, she calls him the P word. Once he mans up and, after an argument, attempts to win her over with a grand romantic gesture, they happily enter into what promises to be an adult relationship.
Which brings us to Ted, in which her Man-Up Dream Girl persona becomes something of a caricature, as probably makes sense in a movie starring a computer-generated stuffed animal. Kunis plays a rising public-relations star who, as she told Entertainment Weekly, “knows what she wants out of life and desperately wants her boyfriend to be in her life with her in the same way.”
Wahlberg plays her sweet if clueless car-rental-agent boyfriend, who spends an inordinate amount of time getting high and watching Flash Gordon with Ted, a toy who was brought to life on a childhood wish. Kunis tones down the taunting in this movie, instead simply telling Wahlberg’s character that she needs a man, not a boy. Her character is unrealistically patient and understanding, but her mission remains the same—and her boyfriend ultimately comes around.
After Knocked Up hit theaters in 2007, The New Yorker’s Denby dissected the decade’s slew of movies in which successful, mature women (“strivers”) date ambitionless boys (“slackers”). In his article, he lamented the genre’s implication that “women bring home the bacon, but men bring home the soul.”
Kunis was up for Heigl’s role in Knocked Up, but she didn’t get the part. Perhaps she gave the character too much soul. Yet she seems unlikely to be cast as the ethereal-muse type—as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl—a role that tends to be blinded by soul. By bringing home bacon and soul, Kunis may just be the role model men have been seeking.