Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Ted / ***½ (R)

John Bennett: Mark Wahlberg
Lori Collins: Mila Kunis
Ted (voice): Seth McFarlane
Rex: Joel McHale
Donny: Giovanni Ribisi
Sam J. Jones: Sam J. Jones

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Seth McFarlane. Written by McFarlane and Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild. Running time: 106 min. Rated R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use).

So, I’m watching this movie about a teddy bear, who talks because the boy who got him for Christmas one year wished they could be friends for the rest of their lives. After they become adults, they continue their adolescent behavior until the boy’s girlfriend insists he grows up, which means the teddy bear must grow up and move out on his own. So, the boy, now a man, is leaving the teddy bear on his own in a strange apartment for the first time in his life, and I’m sitting there thinking, “You can’t do that, man! This poor teddy bear has never been on his own before. How can you leave him alone?” And I’m getting all choked up over a teddy bear. A fucking teddy bear!!!

What makes it worse is that this teddy bear really isn’t all that nice. He’s foul-mouthed (inspiring my previous expletive). He’s selfish, and he sounds like a cross between Peter Griffin and Brian Griffin from the popular adult-themed cartoon series “Family Guy”. There’s a good reason for that. The same guy who provides both of those character’s voices is also the voice of Ted here. In fact, Seth McFarlane, who gained fame through his crass cartoon creation, is also the writer and director of the movie “Ted”, of which I write. Like “Family Guy”, “Ted” is a wildly inappropriate take on something generally associated with childhood and good family values. It takes many of the qualities of life we value and slaps them in the face with political incorrectness and turns them upside down. It’s also incredibly funny.

John Bennett wasn’t much liked as a kid and after he made his wish, Ted came to life. McFarlane is smart not to address the incredible development of a talking stuffed animal as anything less than freakishly amazing to John’s family and the rest of the world. Ted becomes an instant celebrity, with spokesperson deals and appearances on television talk shows. He’s also smart to use our nation’s waning fascination with yesterday’s celebrities as an excuse for how Ted becomes a has-been that can actually function in the world without an entourage or bodyguards.

This leaves Ted and the now adult John, played by Mark Wahlberg, to spend most of their days getting high and watching the 1980 movie “Flash Gordon” on an endless loop. Of course, these days Ted is hardly the only friend in John’s life. John is actually in the middle of a four-year relationship with Lori, who puts up with Ted. However, Lori feels that if their relationship is going to progress to another level, John must become more of a responsible adult, which could mean severing ties with Ted’s adolescent influence.

That’s really about all the plot anyone could need for this film, however, because it’s humor doesn’t come from the plot. McFarlane understands the conventions of the plot, but doesn’t really find it interesting enough to give it his full concentration. In another person’s hands this movie might’ve been about the phenomenon of a talking bear in the real world, but again this more conventional take on the subject of a talking teddy bear doesn’t interest McFarlane. That is why he fast forwards to a point after Ted’s fame has subsided. No, McFarlane is much more interested in the mundane details of living, which are a little less mundane if you are a talking teddy bear who enjoys drugs and sex.

Fight choreography is common enough in movies, even those involving teddy bears. The fistfight that takes place between John and Ted here is a great example of the type of mundane detailing that McFarlane uses to enhance his comedy. The fight goes beyond what you might typically find between movie buddies. It is brutal and lasts much longer than most. The two characters utilize set pieces and props in ways you might not expect, but also in ways that you might actually use them in life. Beer bottles fly, a Bible is chucked at someone’s head, and a hotel television falls on the last place you’d ever want it to. You really can’t deny the humor behind a fistfight involving a teddy bear that is one of the more violent things you’ll witness on screen today.

Much like “Family Guy”, “Ted” is also peppered with pop culture references, mostly from the early ‘80s, upon which Ted and John base much of their lives together. Besides their obsession with “Flash Gordon”, they also have cell phone ringtones from popular 80s television shows and movies. They make constant references to iconic moments in movies and music from the 80s. Even their fantasies are based upon recognizable pop culture from the era. Walter Murphy’s score is drenched in the 80s sentimentality that characterized many of the time period’s family and romantic fare.

McFarlane also populates much of his cast with performers whose voices make up the various cartoon characters he’s created. Patrick Stewart, who voices the FBI Director on “American Dad”, provides the narration for the story. Patrick Warburton, who voices the handicapped Joe on “Family Guy”, plays John’s co-worker who is a bit confused about his sexual orientation. Take note of who plays his boyfriend and never utters a line. The voice of Lois Griffin from “Family Guy”, Alex Borstein, plays John’s mother. And, Mila Kunis gets a much-deserved worthwhile role as Lori, after years of providing the voice of the “Family Guy” punching bag, Meg. The list of the McFarlane company of players in the cast goes on much longer than that.

What makes this material work so well is an honesty that seems to reside at the core of artists like McFarlane. Much like Howard Stern, McFarlane’s humor is based on everything that ever mattered to him growing up. Much of what he jokes about is in poor taste, but he’s well aware of that. He knows that we all have some poor taste in our hearts. He’s honest enough to make the comments and reference points that we are all well aware of, but are too polite to make ourselves. He infuses this humor with the geek culture he helped to popularize with his groundbreaking animation series. And really, if you had a teddy bear that was your best friend since you were a kid, wouldn’t he be your drug buddy too?

Warning! This is the RED BAND trailer. Contains foul humor.

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