Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Early in Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s feature film debut, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) comes home to find his lifelong best friend and actual teddy bear Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) on the couch with a bunch of hookers. They’ve just watched Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, Ted reports, and it was horrible, but it doesn’t really matter because, you know, they’re just hookers. It’s a typical MacFarlane cheap shot—say something sucks, then faux-ironically say a group of people sucks—but it doesn’t sit quite right, coming as it does in the middle of another comedy about a loser guy hanging on to his youth instead of growing up. Didn’t we just watch this story a few weeks ago, and didn’t it star Adam Sandler? In trashing a crappy Sandler movie in the middle of what’s basically his own arrested-dude movie, does fellow 80s-and-90s enthusiast MacFarlane really have a leg to stand on?
To his credit, he has dreamed up an irresistible hook for the latest adult male coming of age fable: John’s wish that his beloved stuffed bear would come alive was granted at age eight, and now almost three decades later, Ted lives on to smoke weed, swear, and sit on the couch alongside his human buddy, talking about the awesome badness of Flash Gordon. John works at a rental car business, going mostly nowhere, although he is able to make his foxy, patient, successful girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) laugh. But they’ve been together four years, and Lori thinks maybe it’s time for John to put away childish things, or at least have childish things move to their own apartment.
The intense friendship between, and rocky separation of, a grown man and a CG-animated stuffed bear with a penchant for dirty jokes has some built-in sight gag laughs, especially with Wahlberg doing his best enthusiastic dim-bulb routine. But like Peter Griffin on Family Guy, John’s dopiness comes and goes at will: sometimes he’s a dumb guy, and sometimes he’s a smart-ass slacker making obscure movie references (Griffin’s spiritual predecessor Homer Simpson shares that flexible-intelligence-for-comedy’s-sake trait, but at his best, his stupidity contains magnitudes, not just two alternating styles of jokes). As Lori, Kunis jokes and swears a little too, to show that she’s a good sport and not a nagging straight woman. A fat lot of good it does her: Lori still has to go through the nagging motions, and her easygoing approachability only serves to make those conflicts feel more mechanical and empty. MacFarlane, for his part, is a gifted voiceover actor, which makes it all the more frustrating that Ted sounds like a miniature Peter Griffin, with the Rhode Island rasp softened into a greater-Boston squawk.
Wahlberg, Kunis, and some good effects work do ground the movie; with animation confined to a single character, the anything-goes laziness of Family Guy and its ilk necessarily tempers itself, and Ted, in telling a single story without burning itself down for yuks, feels less pointless than its exhausting TV siblings. But only just slightly. It has its incidental pleasures; MacFarlane and his cowriter buddies are happy to dwell on a joke, letting dialogue roll around and poke fun at its usual utilitarian nature. This makes for tension-breaking laughs when, say, Ted pauses with amusing self-doubt to mull over whether “meathole” actually makes sense as a euphemism for “mouth.” It also makes the movie protracted—or maybe that’s the screenplay as a whole. Just about everything about Ted feels stretched out and padded with familiar shtick: the bear makes racist jokes that are supposed to be knowing and therefore harmless in their racism; sex jokes abound, some amusing and some not; and the movie pauses to take shots at random movies and celebrities, like when Patrick Stewart’s narrator detours into complaining about how much he hated Superman Returns. Finally, someone who will speak truth to Brandon Routh about a movie from six summers ago!
MacFarlane has the irreverence of a satirist, but no real targets, and nothing much to say about his subjects (I hate to raise the specter of Step Brothers each and every time I see a less successful arrested-dudes comedy, but seriously, Step Brothers treats the same subject with both low comedy and clever satire that ought to be a model for future attempts). The references to Jews or Mexicans, Brandon Routh or Adam Sandler, the awesomness of Flash Gordon or the awfulness of Flash Gordon—they all serve the same lack of purpose, further entries in the comedy of mentioning. This technique leaves MacFarlane’s instincts for actual spoofery weak, possibly atrophied. At one point, John recalls his version of the night he met Lori, and the movie indulges in a Family Guy-style cutaway to a Saturday Night Fever spoof that hews so closely to the Airplane! parody of the same scene that I honestly wondered if MacFarlane realized he was ripping off that movie, or if that was supposed to be some kind of a dead-end meta-joke unto itself.
The MacFarlane faithful will doubtless enjoy Ted, and even some Family Guy haters might find it more tolerable for its semblance of a heart, or the way Norah Jones turns up to make fun of herself. But for a good-time, crowd-pleasing broad comedy, it somehow manages to feel like a vanity project, too—a testament to the fun you can have, the cameos you can attract, and the stuff you can get away with saying when you’re Seth MacFarlane. Obviously, making this stuff isn’t a bad way to make a living. Watching it, though, may be a chore for the unconverted.
Opens June 29