Seth MacFarlane makes a welcome transition to the big screen with the hilarious, profane and even (yes) touching Ted.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS! YOU KNOW, LIKE THE ONE ABOUT LUKE AND DARTH VADER!
One Christmas evening in 1985, a very lonely child in need of a best friend made a wish on a shooting star that his teddy bear was real. Because, as narrator (Patrick Stewart) tells us, nothing in the world is more powerful than a child’s wish, except an Apache helicopter, so his wish is granted. The boy got his best friend, and the world was momentarily captivated by this suddenly, magically real, talking teddy bear. Twenty-seven years later, that boy is the now 35-year-old John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) who lives with his long-time girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) and the still-talking Ted (voice of Seth MacFarlane). Ted has gone from adorable and precious to sad and pathetic, his 15 minutes of fame long over and his life now mostly dedicated to getting high and getting laid, although he is still fiercely loyal to John, his “Thunder Buddy For Life.”
After four years together, Lori gives John an ultimatum: kick Ted out, so John can grow up and have a mature relationship with the woman he loves, or give up Lori to live in arrested development with Ted. On the verge of a promotion at the rental car outlet where he works, and not wanting to lose the love of his life, John gets Ted his own apartment and a job at a grocery store, but he still refuses to let Ted go. As his relationship with Ted strains his relationship with Lori, Lori begins to wonder if she shouldn’t go out with her sleazy, creepy boss Rex (Joel McHale) instead, and Ted finds himself stalked by obsessed fan Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) who wants to give Ted to his own son.
Seth MacFarlane made a name for himself, for better or worse, with the animated series Family Guy, a cartoon both for adults and for adults who don’t act like adults. Along with being littered with pop culture references and humor that at times bordered on Dadaism, it was also full of fart jokes. It resembles the “throw everything and see what sticks” style of the classic Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films (like The Naked Gun), although later seasons became extremely hit-or-miss. Ted, MacFarlane’s feature film debut and his first major live action offering, thankfully resembles the early years of the show, a remarkable balance of humor, crudity, heart and cutaway gags.
You and me and her.
Balance is the key word here. Too much heart, and the film becomes sappy and too sugary to get down. Too much crudity, and we have yet another Adam Sandler-type film best enjoyed while drunk at a fraternity. Too many pop culture references, and the film itself vanishes into a sea of poor satire. MacFarlane manages to juggle all the aspects of the film with the care and precision of a veteran Cirque du Soleil performer. Granted, this film is pure MacFarlane though and through. If you’ve never enjoyed Family Guy, you’ll probably be highly resistant to the film’s charms. However, the use of live action seems to temper the more common irritants of his animated properties, and underneath all the scatological humor and cutaways is a remarkably mature film about letting go of the past.
MacFarlane doesn’t pull any punches or soften his style for the screen. In fact, a lot of the humor is more extreme than anything he’s done on TV, thanks to the lack of Standards & Practices. This is a hard-R comedy, and kids should be nowhere near it. Ted smokes pot, gets drunk, bangs co-workers in the produce aisles and swears in nearly every scene. Because he’s a teddy bear, most of the cast thinks this is kind of adorable and not depraved (and occasionally criminal). It’s The Hangover with a plush tummy. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of references will go over the heads of anyone under the age of 30.
It’s your chance, do the hump.
MacFarlane himself brings a huge amount of personality and likability to Ted, even when Ted’s saying something horribly offensive (which happens more often than not). Ted makes gay jokes and racist jokes because, like John, he’s a teenager at heart and expects the rest of the world to revolve around him instead of him adjusting his style for mature society. Ted himself refuses to grow up, still clinging to the past, primarily because that’s when he was at his peak, appearing on magazine covers and on Johnny Carson‘s show. Growing up would indicate giving up the last tattered shred of celebrity he once had, and it’s clear that he and John are in a kind of symbiotic loop, both of them enabling the other to avoid responsibility while blaming the other for their actions. Ted himself is remarkably lifelike and tactile, often appearing more puppet-like than CGI. A scene where Ted and John have a knock-down, drag-out brawl in a hotel room (hint: never call Ted “Teddy Ruxpin”) looks like Mark Wahlberg and a living teddy bear were really in the same space at the same time, filming the scene.
Girls, girls, girls.
John himself is just as sympathetic, a man-child whose behavior doesn’t preclude him from adult society, but it doesn’t do him any favors either. It’s clear that he’s not an idiot, he’s just frightened. He has genuine affection for Lori and for Ted equally, and Mark Wahlberg does an excellent job at making John a real, relatable character. He lacks responsibility, but he doesn’t lack reason. He’s just never had a good excuse to grow up, and nobody’s really forced him to. Ted’s both his best friend and a living symbol of a childhood he refuses to grow beyond. Wahlberg has a very easygoing charm as John, and even his famous physique is softened into a kind of plush beef, making him seem all the more approachable.
Mila Kunis herself does a good job with Lori, managing to erase any doubt that she may have gotten the job only because of her association with Meg Griffin. Lori has the patience of a saint when it comes to John, but as the film goes on, it becomes clear that her patience has run out. Kunis has a very strong grasp on Lori’s feelings, and she has remarkable chemistry with Wahlberg and even to a lesser extent with Ted himself. Lori’s strongest point is her ability to see past John’s juvenile behavior to see the good man underneath and, in many ways, she’s kind of an audience surrogate. It’s through her actions that we see the truth behind John and Ted’s relationship, one which might have been obscured under all the cutaway gags and pot jokes.
Come and knock on our door. We’ll be waiting for you.
The supporting cast does a great job, even if there are far too many characters, mostly so MacFarlane could give all his friends some screen time. Occasionally, this works out. Patrick Warburton has a winning cameo as one of John’s co-workers who makes some not-so-startling revelations about himself (let’s just say we find out that Alan Scott wasn’t the only Green Lantern in the closet). Alex Borstein makes the most of her brief moments as John’s mother, while Giovanni Ribisi does his creepiest, scariest Sonny Bono impression. Other characters, like most of the rest of John and Lori’s respective workplaces, seem to exist only to make one-off jokes that don’t always work. As good as MacFarlane does with his main characters, he tends to drop focus on them too often in favor of gags that he doesn’t know will actually connect or characters we shouldn’t care about.
And of course, the pop culture gags are fast and furious, coming at you from all sides without mercy. As much of the budget of the film likely went to rights clearances as it did to animate Ted. However, unlike Family Guy, these often fuel the story in unexpected ways and are a welcome distraction as opposed to obvious padding. The disconnect between John and Lori’s outlooks is emphasized by their conflicting memories of the night they met. Lori remembers getting knocked to the floor by John’s spastic breakdancing, while John remembers a near-perfect recreation of the “disco flashback” scene from Airplane!. Ted and John’s favorite film growing up was the Dino De Laurentis version of Flash Gordon, which later manifests itself in an extended, hilarious, self-deprecating cameo of Shatnerian proportions by Sam J. Jones, Flash himself. However, only John and Ted ever make pop culture references, a sign that they’re still living in their shared reality of 1985 and refuse to leave it. The exception to this is Donny dancing along to Tiffany’s video for “I Think We’re Alone Now” while sipping what appears to be a Long Island Ice Tea. It quickly leaps from embarrassing to unsettling in a way that nothing else in the script or Ribisi’s performance could convey.
He’ll save every one of us.
MacFarlane’s film debut is a winning combination of humor and heart, of crude jokes and genuine wit. It never shies away from his signature Family Guy style, for better or for worse, but it’s full of promise and potential. Here’s hoping that like John, MacFarlane sees this as a crossroads between the ever-diminishing returns of his animation empire to the crafting of some of the best R-rated comedies since…well, since 1985.
Rating: 8 out of 10 / B+
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and thinks we’re alone now.