The comedic formula practiced, developed and recycled by animation creator Seth MacFarlane on his collection of wildly popular animated shows (“Family Guy,” “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show”), is to tell a fairly standard, often hackneyed, sitcom-worthy story, embellish it with omg! “taboo” post-millennial topics (AIDS, incest, etc), and chop it up with a series of randomly selected tangents, either to emphasize pop culture references or to underline the outrageousness of the main thread. The animated comedies are tonally schizophrenic, exhausting, and somehow hugely successful, even though the gags far outweigh the actual episodes and the crassness always supersedes heart and story. A similar fate befalls McFarlane’s big screen debut, “Ted,” about a magical talking teddy bear that grows into an Apatow-ian slob – it’s a collection of solid, frequently gut-busting gags, encased in a messy narrative that is technically inefficient and largely emotionally anemic. The Seth MacFarlane comedy formula strikes again and ultimately unravels an auspicious premise.
And “Ted” begins as disarmingly strong, with an opening that’s promising both in its sense of child-like wonder (a boy gets the ultimate wish after all) and its introduction to some hilarious humor rooted in reality (you’d freak if a teddy bear started talking too). Opening with fairy tale narration supplied by Patrick Stewart, the “Ted” prologue describes the life of John Bennett, an unpopular and unhappy boy who, in 1985, wished for his teddy bear to come to life so he would have a best friend. Much to John and everyone’s surprise, the boy’s wish is fulfilled and the titular bear, Ted, magically and inexplicably comes to life. Clever, cute and genuinely tender and affecting, the opening montage shows the two friends growing up together, reaching rites of passage milestones together while the bear (voiced and performance-captured by MacFarlane), becomes a minor celebrity. Segueing into the present, both characters, now in their 30s, have idled into the arrested man-child syndrome that continues to consume contemporary comedies. Ted is now a foul-mouthed, inveterate, degenerate, weed-smoking weirdo, his fame and cuteness having all but evaporated, and John (played with a likable grogginess by Mark Wahlberg), is working at a rental car company, but clearly coasting by. They are both living with John’s adorable girlfriend Lori Collins (Mila Kunis, a MacFarlane alum from her voice work on “Family Guy”) and the conflict is set up early – John must choose between his lady and his teddy bear.
And yet, the grow up or get out paradigm is less a good, standard and completely fitting story conflict and more of a hanger that MacFarlane can simply drape his various comedic obsessions upon (“Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” rape, casual racism, 9/11) and yet for much of the movie’s running time, you’re perfectly happy to just go along for the ride. Jokes hit like machinegun fire, with so many happening so often that there’s an almost mathematic probability that you’re bound to laugh. And so, for those simply seeking outrageous and filthy laughs, “Ted” more that fills the prescription.
But where the movie eventually falters is in its half-hearted storyline. Attempting to give the film pathos and heart, McFarlane wisely sets up a type of love triangle and ultimatum scenario: John must either mature, evolve into manhood and choose Lori, or continue his lazy, juvenile inertia by getting high and partying with Ted for the rest of his life. Wahlberg’s John has good intentions, and wants to become a better person, but because he’s ultimately such an irresponsible, immature fuck-up, he inadvertently ends up making poor choices that side him with Ted, and these decisions land the 30-something man-child dumped and on the street.
And when John’s been forsaken, is lonely and distraught and tries to lay blame on his enabling Teddy bear, the emotional drama (not to mention the hysterical fight scene) that ensues is surprisingly rich character territory that MacFarlane seems to want to explore. But then “Ted” kind of shits the bed in its last ungainly act, where – and perhaps this is where the irreverent, ADD-riddled sitcom-y tendencies overcome basic movie principals — MacFarlane essentially creates a ridiculous kidnapping/car chase action-sequence that’s out of left field (literally) and throws out all the incredibly potent character conflicts he’s built up in favor of weak, last-minute conflict.
This section reveals the creepy Giovanni Ribisi character from earlier in the film (he offered to buy Ted from John in the first act) to be a full-blown psychopath, and while the sequences and Ribisi are pretty damn twisted and funny in their own right (his lecherous dancing to MTV videos is amusingly vile and skeezy), the decision to chase this narrative path undoes the film’s own set up. The trio are ultimately reunited, no difficult choices had to be made and no one’s ultimately learned much of anything. And sure, the rules of movie narrative are pliable, and in some respects are meant to be broken, but the mavericks who attempt such feats generally know what they’re doing and haven’t carefully orchestrated a triangular conflict that they abandon in the third act just because there’s a sillier and more fun comedic thread to be pursued. And it’s in this third act where the jokes tend to lose their punch and MacFarlane’s reliance on pop culture non-sequiturs feel more like a crutch than an asset, acting to halt the narrative flow and prematurely date the movie (how well are Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Susan Boyle or Taylor Lautner jokes going to play in ten years? In five?).
But even the Lori story – essentially the crux of the film — gets grossly shortchanged for most of the picture. Lori seems like a lovely girl but in MacFarlane’s less-than-deft hands she comes across as sometimes shrill and uptight (A subplot about Lori being aggressively pursued by her employer, played by Joel McHale, is more or less forgotten about by the third act, along with a handful of other frayed and dangling plot threads). As it turns out, the filmmaker is never much interested in their story or relationship, even though he’s built it up to be the central conflict. He just wants Ted to be crass with women and smoke a bong most of the time.
While the picture features solid performances (Wahlberg in particular, showing as he did in “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Other Guys” to be a nimble and gifted comic actor) the filmmaking itself is clumsy, with inelegant transitions. Scenes don’t end as much as give up, and sitcom-y compositions fill every frame (virtually every scene of crummy-looking digital photography is preceded by a static shot of the location where the next scene will take place). Plaudits, however, should go to the pretty phenomenal design and animation by Phil Tippett and his Tippett Studio crew. Ted is always looking, feeling (and sounding) like an organic and fully integrated part of the movie, but that can only go so far.
And as you might guess, MacFarlane is also his own worst enemy. While the incessant “Flash Gordon” references are meant to act as a definitive childhood bonding moment for Ted and John, it’s really just the writer/director cramming in his own favorite ‘80s obsessions (“Cheers,” forgotten pop star Tiffany, etc.) into the film, and most of his requisite, time-them-to-your-wristwatch pop culture citations just distract or aren’t especially funny.
And so the promising “Ted,” which could have landed as something funny and emotional (ala Apatow, Brooks et al) simply ends up being sitcom-y, episodic and rather cheap. While this doesn’t take away from the film’s comedic prowess – which is admittedly fantastic and impressive – it simply allows it to be filed under Amusing And Mostly Entertaining, but this won’t go down in history as one of the more memorable laff fests of the year. The past few months have been marked by a number of high-profile live-action films directed by animators – everything from Brad Bird’s brilliant “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” to Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s “21 Jump Street” and (to a far lesser degree) the old fashioned swashbuckling of Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter.” This is a less auspicious transition. There are flashes of maturation (for one, MacFarlane doesn’t cut away to random bullshit nearly as much as you’d expect), but as laugh-out-loud funny as “Ted” is, the comedy is also rather flimsy and light on imagination. [B-]