Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ted Movie Review

Loosed from the constraints of working in network television, Seth MacFarlane was permitted the chance to make a foul-mouthed raunchy live action comedy film. What makes Ted work so well is its loose tongue and general ease with which characters use colorful descriptions. The fact that a cuddly teddy Bear does most of the cursing is subversive in a kind of brilliant way. The film works a lot less when it ventures into the “Family Guy” territory of shock humor.

The central gag of a child’s plush toy – made come-to-life by an earnest boyhood wish – that smokes weed, curses up a storm, and gallivants with hookers, would grow tired pretty quickly if the story weren’t supported by a pair of relationships that work in surprising ways. John is caught in the middle between Ted, his cute toy who’s been his best friend for nigh on three decades, and Laurie (Mila Kunis, playing straight to a talking doll) his girlfriend of four years.

The story is fairly standard stuff for a romantic comedy: an overgrown man-child has trouble putting away childish things thus frustrating his long-suffering girlfriend. There’s a conflict that breaks them apart and then John has to go for a big gesture to win her back. None of this on its own is of any real interest to me as a moviegoer, but it’s how MacFarlane, who wrote the screenplay with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, treats it that turns it into something different. Ted (voiced by MacFarlane as Peter Griffin with a Boston accent) is established as a real character. That the CGI animation and MacFarlane’s performance are so good are what makes you forget after a few minutes that the whole setup is basically a gimmick. It helps that he’s treated by everyone around him like it’s totally normal to see a walking and talking Teddy. It seems Ted enjoyed his 15 minutes in the 80s, but now he suffers the indignity of being a washed up celebrity like the cast of “Diff’rent Strokes” – the living ones, Ted is quick to point out. Having Mark Wahlberg play John opposite a plush toy without any ironic winking only adds to the realism that helps the film succeed.

The film really teeters on the edge in two areas. The first is that I found myself caring much more about John’s relationship with Ted than with Laurie. Yes, there’s chemistry between them and they seem to enjoy each other’s company, but when John and Ted are together you feel the history, the connections, and the shared experiences. On the other hand, John and Ted never tire of professing how strong his love for Laurie is, possibly indicating MacFarlane’s area of weakness in writing is in organically convincing his audience of the foundations of a romantic relationship. The second point of contention I have (and this is one of my biggest complaints about “Family Guy”) is MacFarlane’s use of both shock humor and blatantly racist jokes for their own sake. When John refers to Cristal Champagne as the preferred drink of black people with money, the point is not to build John up as a borderline racist, but to turn audience gasps into laughter. Those kind of jokes don’t have a lot of staying power.

That said, MacFarlane also manages to make a lot of cheap jokes really funny. Who else can make you laugh at the sight of a grown man knocking a 10 year old boy out cold with a single punch? And who else could make us laugh at fat jokes at the expense of the same child? There are also some very good celebrity cameos, one of which is based on John’s and Ted’s mutual stoner affection for Flash Gordon. But for every great bit there’s a male same sex kiss used as a punch line strictly to make the homophobes in the audience cringe or a crude racist caricature of an Asian (still the last acceptable Hollywood stereotype going) or the predictable casting of Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy man who wants to buy Ted as a playmate for his son.

Ted eventually ventures into a wild climax with an unnecessary villain who seems thrown together for lack of any better direction in the film and who behaves in ways that are rather incongruous with reality. Yet the film works in spite of such limitations. It’s almost endlessly quotable with dialogue rife with jokes both hilarious and vulgar, a combination I’ve not enjoyed so much since Terry Zwigoff unleashed Bad Santa. Thanks to MacFarlane, another cherished childhood fantasy for most Americans has been sullied. And we thank him for it.

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