Review: Ted

(Seth MacFarlane, 2012, USA)

Famous for imbuing the animated sitcom genre with its once lacking adult-centred juvenility, with popular shows Family Guy and American Dad! acting as springboards for his anarchic and predatory sense of humour, Seth MacFarlane transcends the small screen for the big by directing, co-writing and co-producing Ted, a tale of an inherent manchild and his talking teddy bear. Taking cues from Judd Apatow’s highly imitative stock of sweary arrested development and indelicate pathos, Ted is effectively a high concept bromance tinged with a protracted crudeness that strikes at the collective funny bones of its creator’s fans and his loose auteurist stature as a purveyor of shock-value jokes and empty satirical bite.

MacFarlane voices the titular Ted, an oversized bear transformed into a sentient plush by his lonely, eight-year-old owner John, a boy desperate for companionship. After a short-lived celebrity turns into a rapid depreciation fuelled by public debauchery – a true to life rumination on fleeting teen stardom acknowledged by Patrick Stewart’s sullen narration, the convincingly rendered Ted remains by John’s side through his formative years of adolescence up to the present day, the film catching up with them in their thirties as pot-smoking, would-be adults (with Ted’s biology left casually unclear). A mess of gags roughly structured around a simulacrum of a plot, Ted’s narrative stakes come in the form of John’s long-term girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) whose understandable demeanour is put to the test by the pair’s relentless friendship, alienating in-jokes and incessant pop-culture references. After her wishes of a proposal are scuppered by John’s pubertal behaviour – exacerbated by Ted’s smutty rabble rousing, Lori offers him an ultimatum: it’s her, or the bear.

Utilising the same style of brazen comedy that has made his televisual legacy so profitable, nee critically viable, MacFarlane brings to the cinematic table a mishmash of tawdry double entendre’s and fart gags, racist jibes and scathing cultural judgements, and many of them are genuinely (and customarily, if you are a MacFarlane disciple) funny. Lines like John’s on the nose “If I get raped it’s my fault for what I’m wearing” are backed up by Ted muttering gender and/or racially slanted expletives, getting frustratingly rewarded at work for obscene behaviour, fellating a chocolate bar to impress a female co-worker and swapping flirtations with Norah Jones. These jokes, which hinge on Ted’s almost constant on-screen presence, work because they have as their spokesperson an off-kilter hypothesis consisting of ignorant manchild and his animate bear, an effectively done to death premise given a stretched out spin. Yet for all of Ted’s uncomfortably raucous vulgarity, MacFarlane lazily adopts a plot that accommodates traditional romcom values, where relationship ructions are eventually – impassively – ironed out during the film’s runtime. It enjoys its own out-of-the-box tactics, but Ted’s potentially memorable nihilism is clipped by narrative conventionality.

A substantial part of the acquired success of Family Guy is reliant, somewhat, on its approach to illustrating the writers’ culture-targeting jokes as subtexts to each episode’s storyline, which are exemplified by cutaways to extenuating situations and non-sequitur references that offer contextualised sight gags and occasionally hilarious physical musings. This plays on the show’s license as, essentially, a string of animated anecdotes strung around an irreverent denunciation of the American nuclear family, and its jokes do indeed hit more than they miss. In an attempt to replicate said style, the cutaways that bog Ted down are foiled by the film’s own physicality, it’s grounding in reality. Where Family Guy sees its characters going on expanded, gravity defying skirmishes with chickens, Ted occupies itself too much with delivering as much referential punch lines as possible, from an extended ode to Flash Gordon to a shot-for-shot, joke-for-joke Airplane parody that is just one reference too many. This, coupled with a later stage deus ex machina that stoops to a slushy finale (but includes a typically maniacal Giovanni Ribisi performance) sees MacFarlane’s cinematic debut scarcely surpassing the cavalier qualities of sitcom storytelling, no matter how desperately he tries to move the story beyond the depthless plaything it ultimately is.

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