Movie Review: Ted
Beneath Its Edgy, Hilarious Exterior is a Soft, Plush Heart
By Tom Houseman
July 3, 2012
Have you ever actually had soda shoot up your throat and squirt out your nose? It is not a very pleasant experience. Feeling the bubbles climb up the back of your throat in that area where the back of your mouth meets your nasal passage is deeply uncomfortable, and as they slide down your nostrils there really isn't anything you can do to stop it, because inhaling would only make it worse. You just sort of have to let the bubbles dissipate and wait for the sensation to end. I guess what I am trying to say is that if you are a soda drinker, be very careful about when you take your sips while watching Seth MacFarlane's new comedy Ted, because there will be an ever present risk of the fate I described above. But that is a chance you will have to take to get through one of the funniest comedies of the last several years.
Many people had a reasonable fear that freed from the constraints of the FCC and given the license to be raunchy that an R rating permits, Seth Macfarlane might go overboard, filling his movie with disgusting toilet humor and offensive, un-PC jokes without any sort of story or characters to back them up. And yet it turned out that the exact opposite was true. Perhaps it was the structure of a screenplay that compelled MacFarlane to write a well-developed, effective story that rises and falls superbly over the course of the film's 105 minutes. MacFarlane takes a simple concept, “what happens when a child's magic teddy bear grows up along with the child” and smartly fleshes it out, creating enough drama to keep the film moving quickly, with even scenes overflowing with jokes able to move the narrative forward.
Is it the fact that MacFarlane is working largely with real people, rather than animated characters, that gave him the push to flesh out his characters and make them compelling, complex, and sympathetic? Perhaps three-dimensional actors beget three-dimensional characters, but whatever the reason, John Bennett is a perfect protagonist for the film. The idea of a grown-up teddy bear is a perfect allegory for the trope of the male protagonist unable or unwilling to grow up, and Mark Wahlberg is able to make John a protagonist we want to cheer for. Like his girlfriend, we see his potential, while at the same time still being able to enjoy his wacky antics.
Even the character of Ted is remarkably well-developed. We get a sense of who he is and what he wants, and we see him grow and change throughout the course of the movie. Yes he is over-the-top and ridiculous (he is a brought-to-life stuffed bear, after all) but we are still able to relate to him and root for him. Most importantly, his friendship with John is the force that drives the movie, and seeing how deeply they love each other is incredibly moving.
There are a number of entertaining characters that give the film its depth. Joel McHale brings an adultness to his role as John's girlfriend's boss and would-be suitor that Wahlberg's John lacks, and the two are superb foils for each other. Giovanni Ribisi is delightful as a Buffalo Bill-esque stalker, and Patrick Warburton makes the most of his screen time as John's potentially gay coworker. My major beef with Ted is the fact that there is almost no room for the actors to be funny on their own terms. Mila Kunis is the voice of reason as Lori, but she is essentially a humorless nag. The only other substantial character is one of Ted's coworkers, who is crazy and irascible, but not much beyond that. Women are the butt of jokes in Ted, but they can't make any on their own.
This is frustrating because the jokes in the film are so, so funny. Yes MacFarlane absolutely takes advantage of the R rating, and pushes the limits of good taste, but like with the earliest seasons of Family Guy, the jokes earn their keep by being hilarious. They are shocking and outrageous but so perfectly executed and timed. Not every joke is that amazing, which is good, because otherwise I might have choked to death on my own laughter. Other than two lame fart gags that were unnecessary and unfunny, Ted will consistently make you laugh out loud.
But there is so much more to it than that. What separates the great comedies from the merely funny ones (think Bridesmaids vs. The Hangover) is that they have an idea to drive them, a place for the characters to go, and a heart. Ted has all of those things, which is what is able to push the film through its rough patches and elevate it higher than its funniest jokes (and there are some doozies). If this is the type of work that MacFarlane has in him, then I hope that all of his Fox animated comedies get cancelled as soon as possible. He doesn't need anything mediocre distracting him from making films as funny, as moving, and as excellent as Ted.