Ted, the first feature length enterprise by Family Guy brainchild Seth MacFarlane, very blatantly wears its creator’s proclivities on its sleeve. That alone should provide anybody with all the information needed to decide if the film is worth their time or not. Do you enjoy having relentless pop culture references and recreations fed to you intravenously and without context? Are you a fan of clumsy, insecure, and hopelessly lame attempts at shock humor and over-played novelty gags? Do you mind that the Connecticut-born MacFarlane apparently can’t produce locational New England accents that differ from one another whatsoever? Then you’re in luck; Ted may be your Citizen Kane.
For everybody else, it’s a chore and a massive disappointment. Ted has a premise that, on paper, sounds golden– on Christmas day in 1985, a young boy wishes his teddy bear to literal life, and the pair become best friends forever. Cut to the present day and they’re still attached at the hip, although the boy, John (Mark Wahlberg), is now a man, and the titular bear (voiced by MacFarlane, somewhere between Brian and Peter Griffin) is a has-been celebrity whose fifteen minutes have been up for years (and whom the film equates with the likes of Justin Bieber in voice-over narration); he spends his days doing nothing but smoke pot and hold John in arrested development. Promising, right? Wahlberg does most of his best work playing it straight in absurd situations, and with MacFarlane unfettered and in total creative control, the possibilities for unrestrained insanity are endless.
But they also go mostly and shamefully unrealized. Unless, of course, we should consider an hour and forty minutes of Family Guy and American Dad pastiche to be MacFarlane at his most uninhibited. There’s something to be said for playing to your audience, and in that respect, Ted delivers, but MacFarlane isn’t doing or saying anything here that he doesn’t say or do every Sunday night on Fox. The only difference is scale; Ted gets to be bigger than MacFarlane’s animated shows in every single way, from its length to its scope to the sheer volume and intensity of offensive and crude humor displayed in every single frame.
There’s an audience for that sort of thing, but I suspect it’s largely comprised of the MacFarlane faithful, the same people who tune in to watch his programs every week without blinking an eye. And I should probably emphasize now that I can’t be counted among that number, so maybe my opinions here should be taken well-salted. Not, however, for the specific reason that might immediately come to mind; appalling and juvenile comedy tickles my funny bone as easily as more mature and cerebral fare (which is often childish in its own way– see last year’s The Trip). But there’s an art to it, and even after spending a decade at it, MacFarlane doesn’t have that particular craft mastered. He pushes the envelope with all the blunt precision of a sledgehammer; in the uncensored world of film, he’s like an enamored and gleeful preteen using swear words for the first time.
MacFarlane isn’t new to the practice of pushing buttons, mind. But television imposes restrictions on him such that in Ted, he comes off as overly eager to, say, produce an Asian stereotype for the explicit purpose of making a very literal Flash Gordon joke (which follows one of the film’s two admittedly amazing and hilarious cameos). How many times can characters make non sequiturs about homosexuality out of thin air before it becomes clear that the film has no clue how to crack wise about race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation organically? Ted stubbornly tries to brute force jokes that require more finesse, and while the results occasionally prove effective, MacFarlane has ultimately structured his movie the way he structures his TV shows– the plot is built around the jokes when the jokes should be built into the plot.
In other words, Ted is very much a Seth MacFarlane production from script to screen. Even with carte blanche to say what he likes about whomever he wishes, very little here feels unexpected. Where he does surprise us, though, is in the film’s heart; there’s a constant pulse of emotion running through Ted that’s largely absent from MacFarlane’s other endeavors. Through the crass and opprobrious elements, Ted is really about the friendship between the adult John and Ted and how it holds the former back from getting somewhere in life. Ted, ultimately, is the childhood best friend who doesn’t see any need to move on while John has plenty of reasons to do so himself (best of all being his relationship to the tough but genuinely loving Lori, embodied by Mila Kunis). It’s his attachment to his anthropomorphic toy that keeps him static.
The central metaphor about growing up is an obvious one, but it nevertheless works with a great deal of efficacy in the film’s better moments. Of course, that’s not enough to save Ted from itself– or, more accurately, from MacFarlane. The big emotional beats that serve as the payoff of John and Ted’s arc have all the power to bring the film up to 21 Jump Street levels of legitimate sweetness, but every single one gets washed over with a badly timed joke. There’s a sense that MacFarlane’s almost as insecure about his characters admitting platonic love for one another as they are; a better comedy writer would mine laughter out of that tension with ease. But in the end, MacFarlane isn’t interested in fully exploring what makes these guys tick– the price of admission buys you an undercooked bromance and an endless cavalcade of the referentialism MacFarlane is so well-known for. Maybe Ted can’t be criticized for embodying every tic in MacFarlane’s playbook, but then again it can’t exactly be praised for it, either.