As someone who lost interest in Family Guy a long time ago, I’m probably not exactly the target audience for Ted, Seth MacFarlane’s first foray into live action filmmaking. Even the marketing for the film seems to be riding more on your love of the Griffin clan than anything in the actual movie, opting for vague shots of the title character with FROM THE CREATOR OF FAMILY GUY! splashed at the top in most of the posters I’ve seen. So I was kind of shocked to discover that I found the film to be quite often hilarious and reasonably straight-forward, two things that his bread and butter often lack.
My problem with Family Guy, besides the often abysmally few times I laugh at a given episode, is mostly the frequent cutaways; one or two is fine, but some episodes seem to consist primarily of non sequiturs, with the actual storyline barely making up a third of the runtime. In fact after Ted I went home and watched a recent episode to see if perhaps the show had gotten a better handle on storytelling, only to watch Peter fight a chicken (again! This gag was getting old when I stopped watching the show years ago) for a full five minutes, and another minute wasted on the intro to a made-up Spanish talk show called Muy Importante. Factor in the other assorted nonsense that didn’t have a damn thing to do with what was going on, and there was precious little time left for the episode’s plot (Joe and his wife breaking up). So there goes that theory.
Thankfully, the movie doesn’t have much of that sort of stuff, if anything the plot drags at times, a problem the show will never have. After making a wish for his stuffed bear to come to life, lonely kid John Bennett wakes up to discover it came true – his only friend “Ted” is able to walk and talk on his own. Now it’s 28 years later, and the two are inseparable, drinking and getting high while watching TV, much to the chagrin of Lori (Mila Kunis), John’s girlfriend who wants him to grow up and propose, and also live a life without a teddy bear jumping into bed with them or bringing hookers over to their apartment.
And that’s what makes the movie work – Ted’s not some secret that John has to hide from his friends and coworkers. As we learn early on, Ted was kind of a huge celebrity when he first appeared; going on The Tonight Show and on the covers of various magazines, but then everyone just sort of stopped giving a shit. So John is free to walk around in public talking to him and no one thinks anything of it; save for taking the occasional photo (or being harassed by a creepy fan played by Giovanni Ribisi; a subplot that gives the film its obligatory "action" climax), he’s just another character in this bland world. John works for a car rental company, Lori works at a PR firm, and MacFarlane’s images are largely colorless and dull. The film’s DP was Michael Barrett, a veteran of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and a few Happy Madison productions (which if nothing else are usually pretty colorful), so I assume this had to have been an intentional choice to help sell this as a blue collar, 9-5 world and in turn make Ted feel like a natural part of it.
Also making it work – it’s hilarious. I laughed a total of three times at that Family Guy I watched, but this operated on a pretty successful hit/miss ratio for the big laughs. Few things I’ve seen this year are as funny as the sight of a stoned teddy bear trying to explain the plot of Jack and Jill, and any movie that has a guy singing the theme to Octopussy to a group of angry Bostonians is automatically worth a look (that I’m from Boston, where the movie was mostly shot, didn’t hurt). It also has a running gag about Flash Gordon and a few random cameos, which worked great as well. Now, you might be thinking that sounds just like an episode of Family Guy, but there’s something inherently funnier about hiring Tom Skerritt to show up as himself for a simple gag than it is to simply draw him into the show to waste time.
Another thing in its favor is the surprisingly strong chemistry between Wahlberg and Kunis. I assume it’s because they’ve worked together before - they have a great rapport and trade jokes with ease, so I guess we finally have justification for Max Payne. Their scenes with their coworkers are far less successful; while I enjoyed Joel McHale’s turn as her asshole boss trying to steal her away from John, the film could easily lose anything that finds John or Lori chatting it up with their office mates, mostly just telling us things we already know, or going out of their way to tell some of the film’s less successful jokes (the “furry little friend” joke was excruciating considering the time it takes to set up). Ted’s trailer trash girlfriend also added little to the proceedings, but it’s almost worth it for his strange moments with his boss (Bill Smitrovich), who sees every terrible thing Ted does as a reason to promote him.
Look, it’s a talking teddy bear movie. It’s not high art, the plot is pretty much stolen directly from I Love You Man, and there are probably two too many fart jokes. But it works more often than it doesn’t, and overcomes a major hurdle: being the first film from a guy who seemingly struggles to come up with enough funny material to sustain a 22 minute cartoon. Along with the often impressive bear FX (kudos to the animators for not going overboard – it looks like a cheap toy, as it should) and the always enjoyable sight of Mark Wahlberg letting his guard down, it stands as one of the few films this summer that managed to be better than expected.