For a movie with a titular character that smokes a ton of pot, watches Flash Gordon on a loop, and regularly hires prostitutes for fuzzy sex, Ted, the directorial debut from Seth MacFarlane, has a surprising amount of heart. From its honest portrayal of a childhood friendship to its surprising stance on middle-aged maturity, the film has one of the most bizarre dick joke to earnestness ratios ever, but strangely it all works and is, most importantly, hilarious.
Generic as the story may seem –a young boy named John wishes that his teddy bear will come alive and the wish comes true – MacFarlane, who co-wrote the script with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, actually takes it to some interesting places. As an adult, John (played by Mark Wahlberg) is a pothead slacker who seems like a ton of fun to hang out with, particularly when he is with his fluffy friend (voiced by MacFarlane), but the movie also works to make us understand that his particular brand of lifestyle isn’t exactly healthy or mature. John’s girlfriend of four years, Lori (Mila Kunis), spends a good amount of time on screen urging her beau to spend less time with Ted and try to get his life sorted, but instead of being the typical villainous bitch, the audience is given permission to see and understand her argument. It would be too much to say that Ted was made to undercut tropes of similar bromance/romance films, but the way MacFarlane navigates around them is fascinating.
All that said, the movie is still in many ways exactly what you expect it to be. Happy to earn its R-rating, Ted opens with voice-over narration from Patrick Stewart who informs us that Christmas in Boston is the time that all the neighborhood boys beat up the Jewish kids, and it only escalates from there. Ted, whose cute look belies the character’s raunchy nature, is never too far away from a quip about anal sex or fugly Boston chicks, but it’s important to note that the jokes work not just because they’re dirty, but because of their timing and delivery. Be it John quickly listing as many white trash girl names as possible or Ted having a confrontation with his boss at the grocery store, nothing about the film feels lazy, but instead meticulous and well-constructed. Multiple scenes had me curled up in hysterics, and I’m positive that actually I missed a couple of jokes as a result.
Ted even features a moderately revelatory performance by Wahlberg. While most of the actor’s career in comedy has been spent playing overly-aggressive, angry jerks (see: The Other Guys, I Heart Huckabees and, to a certain extent, The Departed), MacFarlane gives him the opportunity to do a 180° turn and the results are surprising. Despite still being a well-built guy he’s completely believable as a stoner/slacker and, perhaps most importantly, there isn’t a single moment in his scenes with the CGI Ted where you feel like he’s talking to someone who’s not actually there.
The movie also has a stellar supporting cast that contributes greatly to the hilarity. Giovanni Ribisi, who plays a creepy father with an extreme Ted obsession, sells it with every twitch and Joel McHale, as Lori’s skeevy, sexually-aggressive boss, aptly sells slime-ball. The real scene-stealer, however, is Patrick Warburton as a co-worker of John’s who regularly blacks out and calls a random guy to beat the crap out of him. It’s strange for sure, but also features one hell of a payoff.
A recognizable problem to anyone familiar with MacFarlane’s TV work, Ted loses its footing because the guy sometimes can’t let go of a joke. At the best of times it’s just the filmmaker realizing that he’s hit on something funny and has a desire to use it more than once (eventually driving it into the ground), but where it’s really a problem is where MacFarlane tries to make an unfunny joke funny through constant callbacks. While it’s nice that John and Ted have Flash Gordon as their favorite movie to watch while stoned, it’s a mostly empty well that is beyond dehydrated by the end of the film. MacFarlane also largely stays away from the cutaways that have become a hallmark of Family Guy, instead sticking with organic material from the narrative, but some bad habits die hard.
It’s interesting that this film’s release comes so close to Adam Sandler’s latest disaster, That’s My Boy, because they actually have a lot in common. Both are set in or around Boston and have a character that speaks in an exaggerated accent, both feature montages about fading 80s child stars, and both are R-rated comedies that aim to make the audience laugh using crude humor and curse words. The difference is that Ted just about gets everything right that That’s My Boy gets completely and utterly wrong. MacFarlane’s movie isn’t without problems of its own, but it’s still one of the best comedies of the year.