Ted, the romantic / bromantic comedy that became Universal’s biggest commercial success of 2012, tells the tall tale of an unpopular boy who, one evening, makes a wish that his teddy bear will magically come alive and become his best friend for the rest of his life. The titular bear does exactly that in the film’s prologue, before the action speeds on 27 years to the present day, where we find the 35-year-old John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) enjoying life with his washed up ex-celebrity flatmate bear Ted (voiced by writer and director Seth McFarlane), who has indeed remained his best friend in the ensuing couple of decades.
If McFarlane’s name means nothing to you, then the premise probably sounds a little Disney-esque at this point. McFarlane, however, has followed the same path trailblazed by the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, and South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone; he has produced the often very funny TV cartoons American Dad and Family Guy, which for many years have explored adult themes and have delighted in having their animated characters say the kind of things on air that real live actors cannot usually get away with. Thus McFarlane’s Ted is an attempt at a wildly-offensive comedy in which the titular bear smokes weed, snorts lines of coke, fights, drinks, pays for hookers, drives when stoned, swears repeatedly and generally tries to exhibit all the behaviour that, if the legend is to be believed, would have Uncle Walt turning in his cryogenic stasis chamber.
Aside from a few jokes that hit the mark, that’s pretty much all there is to Ted. Sure, there’s a basic plot there; Bennett is having commitment difficulties (yawn) with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), and following her frustrated ultimatum he must (yawn) choose between the girl and his best pal. But wait! That’s not it! There are enjoyably silly subplots involving Lori’s sleazy boss Rex and weird teddy bear kidnapper Donny (played by Community‘s Joel McHale and Giovanni Ribisi respectively, both of whom are great fun). But McFarlane isn’t trying to dazzle anyone with a plot; Ted is simply all about the premise, and the number of laughs that can subsequently be milked out of its offensive teddy bear star.
The best scenes revolve around the idea of Ted getting a job in a local supermarket, which he doesn’t actually want. He insults his boss when being interviewed and is subsequently praised for his strength of character and direct manner, and given the job. He has food produce-related sex with fellow checkout worker Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and gets a promotion after they are caught in the act. The scenes with Wahlberg (who gets into the spirit of things and fulfills the straight man role adequately enough) do start to drag after a while, and embarrassing celebrity cameos come and go (Norah Jones, Sam ‘Flash Gordon’ Jones, Tom Skerritt), but I just want to re-make the point that there are laughs, even if they’re fewer in number than I’d hoped for. McFarlane’s Ted is a foul-mouthed party animal (literally), and at first it’s quite amusing, but the problem is the overall joke eventually wears thin during the hour-and-three-quarters running time. Once you’ve got used to the fact that – yes – this talking bear is offensive, it simply becomes less and less funny as the minutes tick on.
Ted lacks the cleverness of Groundhog Day, another film that revolves around a single premise (albeit a better, more original one), which instead uses repetition for increased laughs. Unfortunately here we’re ultimately left with a bedrock of tired old dick and fart stoner jokes that we’ve all heard countless times before, and way too many times in recent years. When McFarlane really does let loose with the insults you kind of want him to run and run with that tone, to take it to an extreme, to see just how offensive he can be and just how many people he can offend. After all, the mask of the bear is there to be used. But he doesn’t take that risk and he doesn’t go far enough.
For me there’s a nagging feeling that this kind of comedy – where the writer is effectively hiding behind a CGI bear / puppet / cartoon character - has a certain degree of cowardice hanging over it. Perhaps it’s indicative of the lack of risks taken for the most part by big American studios, in that the only way writers are able to get this dialogue up on screen is to have someone/something non-human say it. I’d like to see the same writers, be it McFarlane or Parker or Stone, make Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt or Halle Berry or any other big name trot out these same lines, and not just as voice over actors, either: I want to see their pretty, bankable faces insult as many people as they possibly can, shaving millions off any future fees they are able to command. Perhaps, in the spirit of fairness, those writers would love to do something slightly subversive and anarchic like that, and it’s true that plenty of big name actors are willing to poke fun at themselves, but convincing the studios to green light such a project is presumably quite a difficult task (though I’m sure a lot easier if your debut feature has just made more than half a billion dollars worldwide).
* Both films have sequels in development, but only one of them has enough mileage to really deserve a follow-up.
I guess the writers are always essentially hiding behind someone else’s face (and to be fair in Ted McFarlane does actually say the lines he himself wrote), but it just seems more credible to me if you’re not hiding behind animation, which I freely admit is an unreasonable prejudice on my part. Because of that, I think Ted falls way short of what I would consider to be the benchmark of modern, offensive comedy: Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, which is much darker, dirtier and is a far funnier film as a result. But hey, Zwigoff alienated the ‘wider audience’ in making his film that way, and so tellingly Bad Santa brought home just a fraction of Ted‘s box office bazillions. That’s the way it goes.*
I should add that I have nothing against cartoons, puppets or CGI bear silliness per se, but Ted doesn’t contain the shock factor of Peter Jackson’s offensive scattergun Muppets parody Meet The Feebles or the relentlessly unsubtle onslaught of Team America: World Police. It doesn’t provoke like South Park: The Movie and it simply doesn’t have the same standard of writing as The Simpsons Movie. The annoying thing is McFarlane has repeatedly equalled the writing in all of those films with that in his TV shows.
The last decade has seen many financially-successful Apatow / Frat Pack comedies, and at times Ted feels like McFarlane’s audition to join that circle of actors, writers and producers. It could have done with a little tightening, and would have benefited from being trimmed down by ten or fifteen minutes, to make the material seem less patchy. It’s all subjective, of course, but unfortunately the idea of a talking bear can’t save what – for me – is essentially formulaic inoffensive comedy fluff masquerading as offensive comedy fluff. Still, McFarlane is a talented guy, and his TV shows mark him out as a great writer. There’s plenty of evidence of that in Ted, even if the jokes are unashamedly basic, and as such I wouldn’t be surprised if he is able to write a truly great comedy film without necessarily deviating from the facetious, cynical style with which he has made his name. Despite its moments, Ted simply isn’t that film.
Directed by: Seth McFarlane
Written by: Seth McFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Seth McFarlane, Mila Kunis, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 106 minutes