In Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted,” a couple celebrating their four-year anniversary finds their relationship falling apart because the fella is in arrested development and let’s his friendship with his lifelong best bud interfere with his relationship with the one he loves, and he has to decide between the two, and somehow finds himself possibly losing both. This is thematic ground that has been covered in countless films over the years, in comedies and dramas alike, so what could MacFarlane, the creator of the animated television series “Family Guy,” “The Cleveland Show” and “American Dad,” possibly do to make his little romantic comedy stand out from all the rest?
Well, he makes the interfering and destructive best bud a fuzzy little teddy bear that has magically come to life, and what would be rote and banal with a normal human character suddenly becomes very surreal and funny. How many times have we seen friends sitting on a couch smoking weed and talking trash in a movie? Tons of times, that’s how many. But how often have we seen a teddy bear taking bong rips and tweeting and driving? That little detail, this one change to the formula, makes the whole thing seem fresh and fun and original. And that specific MacFarlane comedy style, often determined to mine humor out of some offensive and politically incorrect material, comes through in “Ted,” as everything from the pacing to the style of jokes reflects the unique voice behind it all.
“Ted” starts in the 1980’s, MacFarlane’s favorite time in history based on the amount of times he references this decade throughout everything he does, with young John being a social outcast and totally friendless. When he gets a teddy bear for Christmas, he wishes that it was real so they could be best friends for real, and the next morning Ted is alive, talking and ready to be John’s best bud. Ted, as a living, talking teddy bear, became a celebrity and did the talk show circuit, but as explained by the opening narrator (Patrick Stewart), just like with any fad, people got tired of Ted, and he faded back into obscurity. Jump to thirty years later, and Ted (MacFarlane) and John (Mark Walhberg) are still living together, and though John has a great girlfriend in the form of this successful hot chick named Lori (Mila Kunis), everything else about his life sucks because he won’t man up and start taking responsibility for his actions. Instead of getting to work on time, he’d rather sit around with Ted and re-watch “Flash Gordon” over and over. Eventually push comes to shove, and John has to decide whether to continue living like a man-child with Ted, or grow up and try to be an adult with Lori.
It is pretty safe to say that if you are familiar with MacFarlane’s work and style then you know already whether or not you’ll find this movie funny. “Ted” almost comes across as a feature-length TV pilot, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see “Ted” animated show on television on day. And as this is MacFarlane’s first film, though he does have a knack for writing and humor, he really isn’t much of a film director, at least not in terms of any actually inspired or interesting compositions or camera work – it very much feels like a movie made by a TV guy, which is fine because this is a romantic comedy after all, and it’s not like it needs to be technically innovative or anything like that. MacFarlane sets up the jokes and delivers the punch lines, and that’s really the only thing he needed to do to get this ball rolling.
It helps that there is some decent character development between the three main characters, and it’s nice to see that Mila Kunis gets more to do than to just be the nagging girlfriend and instead gets her share of funny scenes and important dramatic moments. And these dramatic moments do exist, especially as the film starts winding down, as the story gets wrapped up and the characters make some big decisions and actually do a little bit of changing, but fortunately there are still jokes in there in the end, as “Ted” doesn’t forget that it’s a comedy, which a lot of comedies do seem to forget sometimes.
Though it is very funny, “Ted” is of course not perfect. There is a weird subplot involving a strange father (Giovanni Ribisi) and his fat son and how they want Ted for themselves, and this subplot is very awkwardly handled. The characters are introduced haphazardly in one scene, and at random, completely unconnected to anything else that’s happened in the story before it, and then they are largely forgotten for most of the film, and only pop up again towards the end to kidnap Ted and raise the dramatic stakes, but it all felt so artificial and dumb, just slapped on to this movie to perhaps pad out the running time a bit, or to make it seem like there is more going on in this story then there really is. And it also results in an inexplicable car chase scene, which feels really out of place and very “Hollywood,” and while that may be the joke with MacFarlane, in the end it’s still just a boring and unimaginative car chase, elevated solely by the fact that a living teddy bear is involved.
But despite this tacked on subplot, “Ted” is still a satisfying comedy, with funny characters and lots of great jokes and a pace that keeps things moving along quite nicely. And if you are a fan of “Flash Gordon,” as MacFarlane clearly is, then you will really appreciate some of the things that happen in this wild movie. It gets raunchy and ridiculous but it also has plenty of heart, and it all makes for a pretty great movie.
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