The Story of a Man and His Bear
Going into “Ted,” I fully expected a raunchy comedy. What I wasn’t at all expecting was a very sweet, very compelling coming of age story, one that convincingly examines themes of friendship, loyalty, and love. In the best possible sense, this movie completely threw me for a loop. It marks the directorial debut of “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who clearly has a sick sense of humor but also has a lot of heart and isn’t afraid to show it. Yes, you will see a teddy bear smoking from a bong, drinking beer, swearing like a sailor, and squirting hand lotion on his face to simulate a pornographic money shot, but you will also see a buddy story, a romance, a climactic battle to the finish on a Fenway Park light tower, and ultimately, a happy ending. That MacFarlane somehow balances all this is nothing short of astonishing.
Taking place in Boston, the story begins in 1985, when a lonely eight-year-old boy named John Bennett (Mitch Haggins) makes a wish that his Christmas gift, a teddy bear he named Ted, would come to life and gain the ability to talk. Thanks to a shooting star, his wish is granted, and Ted and John make a pact that they will be best friends forever. Word of the miracle quickly spreads, and for a brief time, Ted becomes a celebrity. During the opening credits, we see a montage that shows Ted and John growing up, all the while staying inseparable, just as they promised they would. We finally arrive at the present day, when a now thirty-five-year-old John (Mark Wahlberg) is about to celebrate his four-year anniversary with his girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), a successful office worker.
Although he has found love, John and Ted (a computer generated character voiced by MacFarlane) still live together and have adopted a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, getting by almost entirely on pot and a deep love of the 1980 film “Flash Gordon.” Ted is essentially a slacker, and John isn’t too far behind; he barely makes due working at a low-end car rental office, and he’s frequently late and will often make excuses to get out of work early. Lori understands that John and Ted have a special bond, but she also knows that John will never fully mature so long as Ted is living with them. It doesn’t help that Ted has become foulmouthed, obnoxious, and incredibly vulgar; it comes to a head when he freely invites a group of prostitutes up to their apartment and lets one defecate on the floor. She wants him to move out.
John complies, albeit begrudgingly, and helps Ted move into an apartment above a Chinese restaurant. This requires Ted to get a job as a cashier at a grocery store; strangely enough, all attempts to get himself intentionally get fired result in promotions. This sets up the final act, during which: (1) John and Lori will break up over the former’s lack of judgment; (2) Lori will be pursued by her rich, handsome, and conniving boss, Rex (Joel McHale), a man so clueless that not even continuous rejection can faze him; (3) Ted and John will have a falling out, resulting in a brutal hotel room brawl; and (4) Ted will be kidnapped by an obsessed fan (Giovanni Ribisi), who desperately wants to please his bratty overweight son. Sam J. Jones will also make an appearance, as will Patrick Warburton, Ryan Reynolds, and Tom Skerritt.
One of the best decisions MacFarlane made was to not dwell on the miraculous nature of Ted sentience. Like the Muppets, he’s assumed by the general public to be real and is not made an object of wonder or ridicule. I think that accounts for why audiences can see and respond to his friendship with John; not only does what they share feel completely genuine, we’re actually made to care about them both. In a lesser comedy, the filmmakers would regard a friendship between a grown man and a taking teddy bear superficially; there would be no heart, only inane jokes. In this case, MacFarlane understands that touching, meaningful subtexts can indeed lurk beneath a sea of unremitting crudeness. Without that sense of drama, I seriously doubt the film would work as well as it did.
Learning to finally grow up is another ever-present theme, one that could have easily been choked out by meaningless toilet humor but is instead examined with wit and intelligence. It isn’t so much about a manchild weaning himself off of his childhood possession; it’s more about finding those healthy relationship boundaries and maintaining an emotional balance. Of all the lessons this movie could have taught me, this was the absolute last I expected. “Ted” is one of the best summer blockbuster surprises of recent memory – a crass comedy that can make you laugh while at the same time tug at your heartstrings. I honestly didn’t know such a thing was possible, given the failure of most previous attempts. If you need an example, look no further than the wretched “That’s My Boy,” which is no more a father/son bonding story than I am a rocket scientist.