Seth MacFarlane’s feature-film directing debut mines two of his favorite devices: anthropomorphism and ’80s pop culture. In Family Guy we got a talking dog; in American Dad, a talking fish (and an alien); in The Cleveland Show, a family of talking bears. Now, in Ted, we get another talking bear. It goes without saying that MacFarlane voices all of them, blending outsider commentary with the tics of whatever creature’s spouting it. And as for the ’80s pop-culture references, well, MacFarlane’s spent nearly two decades mocking one.
Ted’s ostensibly a coming-of-age story about 30-something John Bennett’s (Mark Wahlberg) choice between a normal, adult life with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) and his pot-smoking, hard-drinking state of arrested development, represented and enabled by his talking teddy bear. However, maybe because it’s a comedy or whether it’s MacFarlane’s ego, the film has no interest whatsoever in its human characters .
So much so that two of the three main subplots — Ted getting a job at the local supermarket and Ted getting stalked by a deranged fan (Giovanni Ribisi) revolve, naturally, around Ted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because every time the scene shifts from Ted to Wahlberg and Kunis, it’s like a symphony of chalkboard scrapers and wailing cats led by Dully McMyBrainIsOnFire.
I don’t think that’s the fault of the actors, though, as it’s pretty obvious right away that MacFarlane saves most of the best lines for himself, and by “most,” I mean “all.” The only other subplot, involving Lori’s horny boss (Community‘s Joel McHale) would be dead weight were it not for McHale’s natural cocksure sleaziness. He gets nothing to work with, but his presence is hilarious.
These are all the quibbles I had with Ted, because, pound-for-pound, it’s really damn funny. One of my favorite episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is “The Gang Gives Frank an Intervention” because it gave Danny DeVito free range to explore his character’s deepest depths of depravity. The same goes for Ted and Seth MacFarlane.
It’s not simply a teddy bear cussing and making lewd gestures; it’s a teddy bear cussing and making lewd gestures funny. The ads show one scene where Ted flirts with a checkout girl, pretending to sodomize a cash-register and ending with the punchline, “So that’s where we draw the line”; the non-edited act that precedes that line in the film is much darker and has a far superior buildup. As does a scene involving the results of a Truth-or-Dare session with four prostitutes.
Aside from the blue comedy, there’s also the heavy, heavy reliance on ’80s references for a lot of the humor. I’m pretty exhausted from the trend, too, but I have to admit that MacFarlane still can get some laughs from it: The surprise cameo isn’t funny in itself, but the setup and presentation make it rise above the usual recipe of reference, point, laugh, repeat.
In all, I don’t know how well it’ll hold up, whether a few years from now or even on second watch. It’s doesn’t quite have the cleverness, dynamic wordplay (something he didn’t used to reserve only for songs), or subtlety of MacFarlane’s early work, but it’s his best stuff in years. And who’d have thought Ribisi was so flexible?