Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Jessica Barth, Laura Vandervoort, Sam J. Jones
Running Time: 106 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The biggest surprise coming out of Seth MacFarlane's Ted is how edgy it isn't. Sharing similar themes some of the other bromance comedies released over the past few years, the real draw is the foul-mouthed teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane) and all the other crazy happenings surrounding the idea of that stuffed animal being brought to life as a semi-functional member of society, and a washed-up C-list celebrity of sorts. Having never seen a single episode of Family Guy I can only wager a guess based on this that gross-out humor categorizes MacFarlane's approach to comedy. But his first big screen feature also suggests he's capable of more because, taken as a whole, this is a funny, enjoyable experience that fell maybe just half a rung short of my expectations, which were admittedly high based on the trailer. It's really the subtler, subversive stuff that pushes the movie over the hump despite some of its issues, which primarily stem from sex and poopy joke overkill. But in the end, it all somehow works itself out and is more than worth the watch.
In an incredibly funny prologue (narrated by Patrick Stewart), we're told the story of John Bennett, a child living in a suburb outside Boston in the 1980's who has a big problem making friends. That all changes when he wishes one night on a falling star for his new Christmas gift, a teddy bear named "Ted," to come to life. Much to the shock of John's parents, and just about everyone one else in the country, he does, setting off a media frenzy and giving him a friend for life. Flash-forward to 2012 and 35 year-old John (Mark Wahlberg) is in a serious, committed relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis) who wants to get married but must first solve the problem of sharing her boyfriend and their Boston apartment with a talking bear who drinks, swears, picks up prostitutes and gets high on a daily basis. John, a child at heart and loyal to his best friend, is never hesitant in joining in the fun, even if it means skirting the responsibilities of adulthood. Lori gives him an ultimatum: Her or the bear. So Ted, whose days as a top celebrity are well behind him, agrees to move out and get a job. But this doesn't really solve the problem as John must decide whether his wild, childish antics with Ted are worth throwing away a potential future with the girl of his dreams.
The actual laughs in Ted are hit or miss, but when they hit, they hit big. A lot of that stems from the set-up, as the opening minutes of the picture are well enough realized in concept and execution that MacFarlane would really have to work hard to botch the rest of it. Some of the best moments come early when we see the childhood flashbacks of John and Ted growing up together in brief scenes filled with hilarious 80's period details like John's Star Wars figures and Nintendo, as well as the two buds watching Flash Gordon on the couch. Even better handled is the depiction of Ted's celebrity status, which includes a frighteningly authentic looking clip of a past appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It looks as real as can be and that trend continues throughout the film with any scene Ted shares with human actors, as the motion capture rendering of this bear is absolutely flawless, proving filmmakers have come a longer distance than originally thought with this technology. In fact, it's probably the first time a motion capture creation of an animal seems preferable to just stuffing someone in a suit. As far as the actual "man-child needs to grow up" plot, Judd Apatow could probably sue. So could Adam Sandler. We know exactly where it's going and pretty much all the paces MacFarlane must go through to get there. That's the most disappointing aspect of this, along with the fact that some of the toilet humor gets obnoxious and repetitive after a while. But when the script's focus is on Ted acclimating himself to the real world rather than the rift John's bond with him causes in his relationship with Lori, the movie shines. And MacFarlane delivers exactly what's needed in the absurdity department with a hilarious, extended appearance from a certain washed up 80's TV star playing himself and a kidnapping subplot that's even funnier (and creepier) than was likely intended.
The best performance comes from MacFarlane, who provides the voice and movements for the bear. Hands down. He's the star. If anything, Wahlberg's noticeably too old for this role, even within the confines of someone who was cast precisely for that reason. At times it's off-putting, but at others it kind of makes the situation funnier because it's just so weird. But what's strangest is how inauthentic and forced his New England accent sounds considering the actor actually grew up just outside Boston. Did MacFarlane have him do that on purpose to get laughs or am I giving both too much credit? Mila Kunis isn't called upon to be much more than the sweet, perfect girlfriend and, as expected, she pulls it off with little difficulty, as Lori tolerates John's shenanigans only up to a point. While she can drop F-bombs and party with the best of them when necessary, her character's basically a saint, which works well for a story in which no one else is. That holds double for the two villains in the film, Lori's perverted boss Rex (played to slimy perfection by Joel McHale) and Giovanni Ribisi's bizarre stalker character, Donny, whose childhood memories of Ted make him determined to own the bear for his son. All the strange tics and line deliveries that infuse Ribisi's dramatic performances with all the subtly of a sledgehammer are suddenly a whole lot more enjoyable when we're finally given permission to laugh at them. So much so that when this insane story thread completely takes over in the third act I didn't mind it one bit. That, and anything involving Ted trying to survive since his celebrity dried up, are where the film's biggest laughs come from. Especially those involving his job at the grocery store.
While asking the audience to care about anything other than this bear was a tall order and I still wish a concept this excellent wasn't used to frame a familiar rom-com formula, yet it all mostly succeeds in spite of that. Ted also shares the same basic outline as every other guy-oriented comedy that's been released over the past few years, so it's probably a good thing we're not watching for insights or laughs about that. The movie is unfunniest when trying too hard with the bathroom humor, but at its absolute best when it's not even trying to be funny and allowing the premise play out with reckless abandon. It's the smaller, random throwaway stuff that work the best. But you can't help but wonder how great this could have been had MacFarlane dumped the more conventional approach and instead just let the material fly completely off the rails. Maybe he's saving that for the sequel.