Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.
Dir: Seth MacFarlane
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni RibsiRunning Time: 106mins
Despite flourishing on television with the likes of Community and Parks & Rec, comedy is stuck in the doldrums on the big screen, often relegated to supporting act in romcoms placing more emphasis on their former syllable than their latter. Aside from occasional unexpected gems like Black Dynamite or Easy A, it is increasingly difficult to recall any movie of the past few years providing any more substantial laughs than a handful of forced chuckles.
When Seth MacFarlane, creator of the loathsome Family Guy and somewhat better American Dad, announced his intention to direct a movie about a swearing teddy bear, the trend didn't seem likely to end any time soon. Ted is no masterpiece, but against all probability, is consistently funny and, bar an inexplicably insipid final ten minutes, as pure a comedy as you will find this side of Top Secret! The feeling pervades that more could have been made from some promising material and endearingly game stars, but for sheer volume of laughs, it provides hope for the genre's resurrection.
MacFarlane's television origins are evident from the start. Where movies tend to structure their comedies around a series of ridiculous scenes, television prefers rapid-fire individual visual and verbal humour, as is the case here. The opening scenes struggle to meld their gags around the exposition delivered by Patrick Stewart, resulting in clunky non-sequiturs which feel forced into, rather than naturally arising from, the material. Once the story is properly underway, MacFarlane finds his feet: pulling viewers into the present day, the contrast between the saccharine sweetness of the friendless little boy (John) who wished his teddy bear to life and the man he turned into, a pot-smoking layabout with a heavy Boston accent and dirty-minded sentient teddy for company, plays into the writer-director's love of profanity, innuendo and cheesy pop culture. A joke about Corey Haim immediately sets the tone for what is to follow: while making fun of celebrities has long passed its comedic expiry date, MacFarlane injects his wisecracks with enough absurdism to substantiate each into something greater than the meaningless references which bog down the likes of the Scary Movie franchise.
Mark Wahlberg's mad-eyed intensity is put to winning use as the grown up John, whose magical best friend has allowed him to slob through life with little interest in growing up or accepting responsibility for anything greater than remembering where to find the Flash Gordon DVD. Encouraged by Ted, he has little filter for blurting out whatever crude notion passes through his adolescent mind. Wahlberg throws himself into each one with gusto, including rolling off a list of white trash names at astonishing speed to guess the name of Ted's less-than-sophisticated new girlfriend ('Wait, was it one of those names, but with a Lyn after it?'), his every utterance imbued with hyper-exaggerated sincerity. A fight between the two friends is more vicious than anything in the Bourne series - indulging another of MacFarlane's loves, horrendous violence for comic effect - and a perfect showcase for the actor's knack for physical comedy.
Ted himself proves an able match for his co-star despite being created entirely in CGI. The comedy value of throwing a snuggly teddy into situations of inconceivable depravity (especially one involving a defecating prostitute) stays fresh for longer than it should, aided by MacFarlane's snarky voice work mimicking Wahlberg's dense accent to emphasize how symbiotic their relationship has become. The impressive effects work give the bear a tangible presence in the world, whether humping a cash register or, in the movie's outstanding set-piece, being assaulted by a duck named James Franco while Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones attacks a Chinaman named Ming.
MacFarlane stalwart Mila Kunis is no less restrained as John's (implausibly dreamy) girlfriend Lori, though her justified reservations about Ted quickly turn into the tiresome stereotype of a woman trying to push her man's friends out of the picture. Joel McHale pops up in a pointless but entertaining role as Lori's lecherous boss, turning his Jeff Winger sleazy charm up to maximum, while a cameo from Norah Jones mines gold from twisting the singer's sweetheart image. She certainly looks like she's having more fun than in My Blueberry Nights, anyway.
It's possible responses to the humour will rest upon viewers' fondness for a certain type of pop culture. As a child of the eighties and lifelong Bond nerd, watching Mark Wahlberg attempt a disastrous rendition of Rita Coolidge's 'All Time High' from Octopussy was aimed right at my sweet spot, as was John and Ted's adoration of all things Flash Gordon. (Only disappointment? No Brian Blessed. John could at least have uttered a 'Ted's Alive?!!'). Anyone forced to endure the worshipful bleatings of Twilight fans over Team Edward or Team Jacob will double up one supporting character's fate, yet if your personal instinct is to keep a cautious distance from such things, that joke and many others will land with a resounding thud. This is a movie aimed at a specific contemporary demographic, alien to anyone who doesn't fit into its narrow margins and likely to date horribly once a new set of cultural trends takes hold over the coming years.
The movie has no function other than as a gag delivery machine, with thin pickings in the way of plot or meaning. That's not a bad thing, except there are hints at interesting ideas MacFarlane would like to explore, only to immediately shy away. John's dependence on pop culture as a lifestyle is intermittently challenged as evocative of a generation unwilling to leave their childhoods behind: his assertion in an argument that his developmental problems are all Ted's fault is countered as a pitiful excuse for not taking responsibility for his own choices, skewering modern society's tendency to allow people to pass off their shortcomings on easy scapegoats. No sooner is the argument over, though, than the issue vanishes, later contradicted in a finale meekly suggesting such a lifestyle isn't a bad thing after all, provided you can get someone else to believe in it too.
Given how much of Ted's audience will be teenagers and young adults raised under such circumstances, perhaps MacFarlane's reticence to follow through with his criticisms shouldn't come as a surprise. It's sad that the movie seems so content to accept its own shortcomings, though, whether it be the lacklustre ending (which MacFarlane might have intended as sarcastic, but gives no hints to that end), lack of structure to bind the often hilarious skits together into a satisfying whole, amusing characters wasted in bit parts (a half-hearted climactic kidnap plot only offers Giovanni Ribsi a comedy dance routine to make anything of his neurotic villain), and refusal to commit to the subversive ideas it intermittently flirts with. Ted at its best produces some of 2012's finest silver screen comedy, yet can't help but frustrate in only aiming at safe targets. [ 6 ]
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