Review: TED, Raucous Fun With a Dirty-Talking Teddy Bear
Seth MacFarlane has cheerfully stretched the boundaries of U.S. network television "standards and practices" as far as they can go with his animated TV series Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. So it's not terribly surprising that MacFarlane's feature directorial debut, Ted, reflects an 8-year-old boy's exuberant delight in being told he can do (basically) whatever he wants to do, with millions of dollars at his disposal. With such unfettered freedom, the sky's the limit!
Mostly, though, the kid wants to swear and tell dirty jokes.
From the narrator to the lead actors to the bit players, nearly everyone in Ted curses up a blue streak, as though MacFarlane was in direct competition with Quentin Tarantino. But, though the two share an affinity for pop culture references, MacFarlane has no interest in cross-genre pollination or iconic cinematic smash-ups; he's chiefly occupied with provoking laughs and making his characters as friendly, likable, and non-threatening as possible.
Ted is built around a killer premise: What if a talking teddy bear came to life, everyone found out about it ... and then everyone stopped caring?
The premise knocks the stuffing out of nearly every movie dealing with an inanimate object coming to life, or an extraterrestrial landing on Earth, in which the bulk of the running time is spent on one (or a handful) of "believing" characters hiding the phenomenom or trying to get someone else to believe them. Instead, Ted quickly covers that aspect, then gets on to its main story.
Unfortunately, that's when the sitcom sensibilities of MacFarlane and his fellow writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild rear their ugly, 22-minute heads. After a strong start that propels the movie efficiently through two or three crisis points, the narrative needs of a feature-length film begin to weigh down the concept, and despite the cleverness of the writers and MacFarlane's best efforts to take advantage of the big-screen experience, Ted falls prey to its own conceits.
Before that happens, though, the movie is racous fun, filled with multiple moments that made me laugh out loud, kicking off with great narration by Patrick Stewart and perfect tone-setting scenes that establish the two main characters. John Bennett is a sweet, not-too-bright kid who grows up to be a sweet, not-too-bright 35-year-old man-child played by Mark Wahlberg.
John has no great career ambitions and admits he smokes too much pot, but he's somehow fallen into a long-term relationship with the sharp, perceptive, career-minded Lori Collins (Mila Kunis). After four years together, though, Lori is starting the question whether John will ever grow up, especially since he spends most of his time with his teddy bear.
Yup, the titular Ted, a toy bear that John received as a birthday present as an 8-year-old boy, a toy bear that miraculously came to life, became a national phenomenon, and then an accepted part of everyday living for the adult John. He and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) hang out, drink, smoke, and goof around. Ted is a ladies' man, so to speak, and enjoys a swinging bachelor lifestyle, but his influence is beginning to pall on Lori, which eventually leads to an ultimatum.
The movie functions exceedingly well as a delivery system for dirty jokes and a stream of stupid human behavior, but it only works as well as it does because MacFarlane has created a universe in which a sentient manufactured toy can be accepted as a normal, functioning member of society. And what does that really say about a society that has sunk to a level easily entered (and, really, mastered) by a talking teddy bear?
That may or may not have been Seth MacFarlane's intended "message," but it's also the most worrisome aspect of a very funny movie that begs you not to take it seriously.
Ted opens wide across Canada and the U.S. on Friday, June 29. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.