Film Review: Ted

The creator of TV’s “Family Guy” directs his first live-action movie—in which he gets to say and do all the profane, politically incorrect and just plain gross things he can’t say or do on television. And a lot of it is pretty funny.

From The Nutcracker to Chucky to Toy Story, the idea of toys that magically come to life isn’t exactly new. But nobody has done it quite like Seth MacFarlane, who has taken everybody’s favorite plush toy—the teddy bear—and turned it into the FAO Schwartz equivalent of Danny DeVito.

A brief plot synopsis can’t do justice to a movie that gets its biggest laughs from its aggressively R-rated dialogue, its unabashed bodily function humor and its often intentionally cheesy special effects. But here goes.

Ted is the story of a lonely boy named John (played as an adult by Mark Wahlberg), who gets a big, huggable teddy bear one Christmas and makes a wish that comes true: The next day the bear named Teddy (voiced as an adult by MacFarlane) can talk, and lonely John has a new best friend. Forever.

The first smart joke of this film is that, after his initial fifteen minutes of fame as the world’s first talking teddy bear (summed up in an inspired three-minute montage), Teddy seems to have settled into a normal, paparazzi-free life as John’s ever-present BFF. The people in John’s life accept his talking teddy as one of life’s little quirks. Because why not?

Cut to 27 years later, when John is a 35-year-old, underachieving rent-a-car agent who lives with his girlfriend, Lori (played sweet-smart by Mila Kunis), who shares him with his faithful teddy. Call him Ted now. And Ted has grown up, too, into a potty-mouthed, bong-smoking, womanizing layabout who exercises a decidedly bad influence on John (Wahlberg is essentially the straight man in this role). After four years of the cinema’s most unlikely triangle, is it any wonder that Lori, who is as sensible as John is irresponsible, thinks it’s time that Ted got his own place?

That’s just the beginning of a fairly predictable tug-of-war over John’s loyalties. But as Ted keeps coaxing John back into his slacker ways, writer-director MacFarlane keeps finding ways to put fresh spins on old tropes—from the hookers on Ted’s arms to yet another spoof of Saturday Night Fever disco dancing. More importantly, MacFarlane makes sure that Ted isn’t funny just because he talks like a cluelessly opinionated, developmentally arrested ordinary Joe who grew up in a tough Boston Irish neighborhood. That would have been a one-joke premise that wouldn’t have stayed funny for long.

Thankfully, there is more to Ted than that. In addition to being an amusingly rich caricature of your typical overaged frat boy, he’s also the subtly metaphorical half of the relationship at the center of this dead-on parody of your basic, beer-soaked Hollywood bromance. You know, the kind in which the man-childish buddy from the old hood is still hanging tight with the hero and holding him back from growing up. Which he ultimately has to do. Which is the message that gives Ted the resonance that makes it more than just another, well, beer-soaked bromance.

Not that audiences will be thinking about that while helplessly succumbing to this movie’s barrage of over-the-line ethnic stereotype humor, scatological sight and sound gags that try to outdo the Farrellys (not always in a good way) and, on surer ground, wall-to-wall pop cultural references, including appearances (as themselves) by Norah Jones, Tom Skerritt and Sam J. Jones, star of the 1980 camp non-classic feature film Flash Gordon—an improbable childhood hero to John and Ted, as well as, we presume, to MacFarlane.

This running joke is but the flashiest example of how MacFarlane has made even the most out-there gag feel organic to the world of John and Ted. But the bit that shows how truly brilliant he can be is a sequence featuring Giovanni Ribisi as a squirrelly creep who kidnaps Ted—which peaks with Ribisi doing a decidedly David Lynchian dance and lip synch as pop starlet Tiffany sings “I Think We’re Alone Now” on a big-screen TV.

There aren’t too many moments that come close to that one in Ted, but there are more than enough to recommend a comedy that wants to simultaneously shock, delight and knock you a little bit sideways—and does at least one or two of those things roughly every couple of minutes. This is the kind of film that will have moviegoers walking out of the theater, recounting various scenes, and telling each other, “I can’t believe they did that—and I can’t believe I laughed.” Given the current state of rude, crude, gross-out comedies, that should be considered as the sign of a smashing success.