Ted is an impressive directorial debut from Seth McFarlane, the creator and star of Family Guy. Those familiar with McFarlane’s work will know what to expect from Ted. It’s loud, it’s crude, it’s full of retro pop culture references, but it’s also constructed with almost surreal innocence and earnestness. McFarlane can be brutal at times, and he does make a few cheap shots here or there over the course of Ted. (Take that, Justin Beiber! Take that, Brandon Routh!) However, for the most part, the film actually does a remarkable job of balancing its crass in-your-face offensiveness with a weird emotional warmth. At it’s heart, Ted is still the story of a boy and his teddy bear. It just so happens to be a really messed up teddy bear.
In some ways, Ted feels like a deconstruction of the Judd Atapow “manchild” comedies that have taken Hollywood by storm in the past decade. We’ve spent years watching Adam Sandler, Steve Carrell, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogan play boys who got older, but refused to grow up. Ted is just that concept taken to its logical conclusion. The movie doesn’t try to trick us into pitying John Bennett, played by Mark Wahlberg. The movie doesn’t try to convince us that he lives a rough life, or that he’s a failure of a human being.
He is described by his girlfriend Lori as “the hottest guy in all of Boston.” (She’s in the running for the distaff award, of course, played by Mila Kunis.) Sure, he’s a thirty-five-year-old man working at a car rental place, but he’s socially competent, he’s charming and he has a job with the prospect of promotion. The problem isn’t anything outside of John, but with John himself. He has no sense of personal responsibility, and would – left to his own devices – sit around stoned on the couch all day watching Flash Gordonwith his oldest friend. It’s telling that when Lori wants John to make something of himself, she doesn’t insist on lifestyle changes like a new job or a tighter schedule, but instead suggests that he simply try to approach things with a more mature outlook.
John’s best friend is Ted. John is so much of an overgrown child that he never left his childhood teddy bear behind. He never outgrew that stuffed talking teddy bear. He’s still afraid of thunder. He bristles at the use of what more sensitive souls might term “the c-word.” Meeting Sam Jones, the washed-up star of Flash Gordon, is a truly profound life moment for him. McFarlane cleverly manages to anchor all John’s immaturity in Ted. Ted is a childish teddy bear brought to life – the ideal imaginary friend to a small boy without too many other playmates.
There was a time when John needed Ted. When he first appears, Ted reflects John’s earnest childishness. Terrified, John’s father calls for his gun. “A hugging gun?” Ted asks, batting those black little eyes. He helps John cope with his fears and his insecurities. “Thunder buddies forever,” they promise on one stormy night beneath the bed covers. While Ted was an appropriate childish counterpart to John as a boy, with his innocence and sincerity, as he grows he becomes a magnet for John’s less redeeming qualities. It’s suggested repeatedly that Ted is at least a little anti-Semitic, perhaps reflecting that John grew up in a neighbourhood where picking on Jewish kids was a “pastime.”He’s irresponsible. He has no self-restraint. And he brings out the worst in John.
Ted is at its best when it deals with this, as John tries to redefine his relationship with Lori and Ted. Ted expects John to always be the teenager he came of age with, while Lori wants a man she can rely on. All three leads do excellent work with the material. I’m beginning to suspect that, between here and The Other Guys, Mark Wahlberg might be a much stronger comedic actor than a dramatic actor. He has a natural sense of timing, and he works well with the CGI teddy bear co-star. John says some pretty stupid and offensive things, but he’s hard to hate despite them, and Wahlberg manages to convince us that there is something in this thirty-five-year-old manchild that could interest the more mature and driven Lori.
While Lori is the least developed of the leading trio, Kunis does a fantastic job. It’s quite tough to play the more mature character in these sorts of films, trying to coax the lead away from a life of irresponsibility. Lori is, after all, asking John to cut his oldest childhood friend out of his life. She’s also asking him to give up his childhood teddy bear. That’s a very tough role to play without seeming heartless, and Lori never seems especially insensitive or belligerent. Given the script has her going from tolerating Ted to wanting him booted out quite quickly (albeit under a series of understandable circumstances), I suspect it’s Kunis who really sells the character.
McFarlane is solid as Ted. His voice is pretty much Peter Griffin with a Bahston accent. To be fair, McFarlane is good natured to admit this as Ted protests, following a cringeworthy impersonation from John, “I do not sound that much like Peter Griffin!” McFarlane manages to make Ted seem a lot more charming and sympathetic than he probably should be. Ted is nothing more than a rampaging id, who seems to indulge and enjoy life with little thought of the consequences. (He even manages, repeatedly, to have sex, despite writing several angry letters to Hasbro about his anatomical inaccuracies.)
Ted is oblivious to the lives of those around him – seeing John as somebody who exists to amuse him, and little thought for any impact he has on John’s four-year relationship with Lori. His lack of any sense of empathy runs considerably deeper than that. When he engages on his own torrid love affair with a fellow staffmember at his new job, he’s completely unaware that she was ever a mother. And yet, despite that, McFarlane manages to imbue Ted with a certain sense of pathos – the idea that he’s a lost little teddy bear in a world that he simply wasn’t made to relate to. It’s telling how emotionally invested we are in Ted’s well-being by the time the climax comes around, despite the fact that he’s been abrasive self-centred and emotionally unaware for most of the film’s runtime.
McFarlane has a particular style of comedy, and it populates Ted as well. Those familiar with his television work will recognise certain stylistic touches – like the cutaway gags or obscure pop-culture references. To be fair, MacFarlane doesn’t lean on them too heavily. He also tries to structure the story a bit more than most episodes of his television shows. Ted has a very clear act structure, and a fairly logical progression. Sometimes McFarlane’s stream-of-consciousness approach to comedy gets the better of him, as evidenced in the last third of the film.
Don’t get me wrong, the climax is heavily foreshadowed and set up properly. However, the film takes a bit of left turn towards the end. To be fair, this successfully injects a sense of drama and focus into the third act of what had been a relatively relaxed relationship comedy, but it does seem a bit strange when the climax of the story takes place at Fenway Park. It also seems like a bit of a cop-out when it comes to diffusing the emotional dynamics between Ted, John and Lori. Still, it’s always great to see Giovanni Ribisi being delightfully creepy.
McFarlane brings long-time musical collaborator Walter Murphy on board to give Ted a decidedly classy soundtrack. I’ve always admired McFarlane’s commitment to offering that sort of crude comedy with a strangely classy edge to it. I think it helps the creator stand out from quite a few of his contemporaries, and I think that Ted works as well as it does because it’s a surprisingly affectionate and earnest movie. Despite all the pot-shots it makes at celebrities like Joan Crawford, and all the culturally or racially insensitive gags.
Ted is just what the doctor ordered at this point in the summer. A light and refreshing comedic breather that manages to be both witty and engaging. It’s a wonderfully competent directorial debut from a very talented comedian, and I suspect that we’ll be seeing much more in the future.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | adam sandler, brandon routh, family guy, film, John, Lori, mark wahlberg, McFarlane, mila kunis, non-review review, Peter Griffin, popular culture, review, Seth MacFarlane, Seth McFarlane, TED, Teddy bear, will ferrell