Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ted (2012)

I'm not sure how many people who read this blog also read Entertainment Weekly, but a few months ago they named Ben Affleck their "Entertainer of the Year" for directing and starring in Argo. Now, there's not a doubt in my mind that this was a calculated part of that film's Oscar push. At the time, Affleck had not yet been not-Oscar nominated, so the "POOR BEN AFFLECK" meme hadn't made it's way around the entertainment industry yet. It seemed so odd to me that they would have picked Affleck, who, yes, made a terrific film (it placed ninth on my personal top 10 list), but at the time, had not yet become a true box office smash or awards season juggernaut. This is to say nothing of the fact that it was Affleck's only project of 2012. So, if not part of the awards campaign, what other reason could there be for Affleck being chosen over someone who truly was everywhere last year?

There was such a man, after all: Seth MacFarlane. Last year, he had three shows on the air at once: Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. These three made up most of Fox's Sunday night animation block, and continue to wield so much influence that even The Simpsons - without which a show like Family Guy couldn't even exist - is taking cues from them. He's attempted to revive The Flintstones (Fox opted not to order it) and discussed reviving Carl Sagan's Cosmos. He's a Grammy-nominated big-band singer with a successful album. And then, to top it all off, he directed his first film, Ted, an R-rated comedy about a talking teddy bear that went on to gross over $200 million and become one of the most popular films of the year. Tell me that doesn't define "Entertainer of the Year."

All of this is a long-winded way of me getting to discussing Ted. As previously stated, the film is about John (Mark Wahlberg), a man in a state of arrested development who lives with his teddy-bear-come-to-life, Ted (voiced by MacFarlane). His girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), begs him to get his life together and ask Ted to move out, believing the bear to be the reason for John's underachievement. But doing so risks breaking John and Ted's bond, forcing them both to confront the places their lives have arrived at.

If you've ever seen one of MacFarlane's multitude of shows, you know the brand of humor he's into: off-color offensive jokes meant to shock, irrelevant and winking pop-culture references, and random tangents that often involve anti-humor. Sure enough, a lot of this is present in Ted, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The stabs at offensive humor mostly fail - we're enlightened enough as a society now that gay panic jokes are not funny - with the exception of a terrific riff on "white trash names." The pop culture references, however, are another story. A major subplot of the film involves John and Ted's mutual love of the 1980 sci-fi campfest Flash Gordon, culminating in them partying with Flash himself, Sam J. Jones (gloriously playing himself). What makes this bit work (significantly better than it does on, say, Family Guy) is that here, the jokes and the reference from a place of nostalgia and love, rather than empty "hey, this exists!" name-checking. Of course, the jokes land better the more familiar you are with Flash Gordon, but rather than laughing at you, MacFarlane is clearly laughing with you.

In fact, Ted's biggest departure from the MacFarlane Brand - and what truly impressed me the most about the film - was how genuinely sweet and invested in its characters it was. The film takes the time to build John, Ted, and Lori as characters, as well as establishing the relationships between the three of them, and in doing so it makes the ending (one that MacFarlane would gleefully shred on television) surprisingly touching. Though I hesitate to call it "conventional" - this level of characterization is hardly the norm in studio comedies - Ted does show that it has a deep love for the story it's telling and the characters it's about, exploring the difficulty that comes with maturity, which, the film posits, is finding a way to balance the comforts of the past with the possibilities of the future. Needless to say, not many man-child comedies (outside of, maybe, Judd Apatow's films) allow such introspection in between dick jokes.

What makes Ted such a delightful success is that it does present an interesting, if not unique, take on growing up without sacrificing the frat-house humor that many audiences came seeking. This isn't the MacFarlane you think you know. And, to bring it all back around to my opening, it would seem that we're only just beginning to see what he's capable of. It'll be exciting to see where his career as an entertainer and film director takes him. B+

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Wahlberg is game for this type of comedy and he makes every single one of his scenes with Ted, feel real as if Ted himself, was a real-life teddy bear come to life. This also adds a lot more to the humor of this flick that really worked for me considering I’m not a huge fan of Family Guy. Good review Jason.