Seth MacFarlane Swings, Misses With Big Screen Debut

The wait is over. We have, at long last, our first foul-mouthed talking teddy bear movie (with a Boston accent, no less)! Seth MacFarlane (creator and voice talent behind the hit television show “Family Guy”) makes his big screen debut with this inauspicious venture into the buddy comedy genre. All of his worst habits are on full display, from overcooked pop culture references to, literally, left field plot contrivances that are as jarring as they are underdeveloped. The mostly nonsensical material is firmly within his grasp, but it gets away from him time and time again because the screenplay (which MacFarlane co-wrote) has no use for lucidity.

The titular teddy bear is established early on as the world’s first and only living teddy bear, but the rules of the game are never explicitly laid out and the audience is left to question everything about Ted, aside from his love of four letter words. The conceit of a living teddy bear turning into a slacker “adult” is a funny one, but it peaks early and is handled cavalierly. The “oh look, it’s a teddy bear that curses” joke is worn out by the end of the first act. A manic fight scene involving Ted in the middle of the movie that should be uproarious falls mostly flat. Mark Wahlberg plays John Bennett, the grown-up version of the boy who wished for Ted to come to life. Mila Kunis co-stars as John’s longtime girlfriend who sees Ted as nothing but a bad influence.

The opening scenes (including titles) are among the film’s most charming. The brotherly relationship between John and Ted is established via montage without resorting to the cheapest of “Family Guy” sight gags. There is a real sense of timelessness here, part of it due to Patrick Stewart’s typically charismatic narration. However, in an early flashback scene, Wahlberg’s character (circa 2008) asserts that “Chris Brown can do no wrong,” and we immediately brace for the certain avalanche of pop culture references. These include Hootie And The Blowfish, Star Wars (ad nauseum), and an extended segment centered on John and Ted’s love for all things “Flash Gordon.” MacFarlane’s use of John Williams’ “Raiders March” is especially crass.

Joel McHale (of “The Soup” and “Community”), the consummate “likable jerk” is badly miscast as an entirely unlikable jerk, and Giovanni Ribisi plays a thankless role as a creepy superfan that won’t leave Ted alone. Through various story developments, we’re left to wonder what drives Ted, why Lori thinks so little of him compared to her equally lazy and underachieving boyfriend, and why Ted constantly seeks the companionship of human females. None of it makes much sense, and the themes that are hinted at (loyalty and sacrifice) are never explored with any depth.

The film has an unexpected mean streak, and its ancillary targets get no chance to defend themselves. No one is safe – not Jews, not Asians, not Taylor Lautner, none of whom have anything to do with the story. Racial humor can serve a purpose of stimulating discussion and conveying a sense of comfortability between different people, but none of the characters in “Ted” are in on the joke. Some of the jokes comes off as needlessly cruel.

MacFarlane has no sense of how to balance “Ted’s” charm, sophomoric humor, creepiness (when the film goes completely off the rails in the third act), and buddy comedy tendencies, so when the jokes don’t hit their mark, the picture comes to a screeching halt. When your teddy bear movie features a fake-out climax at a Norah Jones concert followed by a 20 minute tangent into pseudo-horror, you may have a problem on your hands.

The film’s saving grace is its mix of practical effects and CGI, and Ted, for all of his shortcomings, is a well-realized creation. Because of this, many of the punchlines that develop naturally from within the story, rather than arbitrary MacFarlane observations and biases, are very funny. The movie is hilarious in fits and starts, but nothing is sustained and every joke, funny or not, is delivered with the dial up to 11. What “Ted” ultimately lacks is a creative force to compensate for MacFarlane’s shortcomings, but I remain hopeful that his concern for audiences will eventually match up to his considerable talent.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Screenwriter: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel McHale, Seth MacFarlane, Patrick Warburton, Jessica Stroup, Laura Vandervoort
MPAA Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use)