Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2012

Ted

Ted talks

Seth MacFarlane's debut features a great Mark Wahlberg, an endearingly foul-mouthed teddy bear, and a lot of poorly conceived comedy

Ted
Universal Pictures
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Screenplay: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Jessica Barth and Patrick Stewart
Rated R / 1 hour, 46 minutes
Opened June 29, 2012
(out of four)

There's a reason people get frustrated with Seth MacFarlane's comedy. It's not the offensiveness. It's not even the randomness. It's that he can't tell the difference between what is a joke and what isn't. He just seems to think any and every thought or reference that pops into his head is automatically funny, regardless of context, timing, juxtaposition or anything else related to how comedy works.

Let me give you an example from Ted that genuinely made me angry: While our hero John (Mark Wahlberg) and his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) are discussing the first night they met, there's a cutaway to John's interpretation. We recognize the scene instantly - it's the Saturday Night Fever parody from Airplane! And . . . that's it. MacFarlane just copies the scene (albeit a shortened version) in full detail, and does nothing else with it. The reference just sits there, unused.

There is literally not a joke there. There's nothing. He could have come up with his own Saturday Night Fever parody. Or he could have even parodied the Airplane! parody somehow. But no. He doesn't come up with a single thing to do with the reference. He just thinks, "Hey, I'll make an Airplane! reference!" And that's as far as he gets. It might be the most self-serving thing I've ever seen in a movie. Even Adam Sandler would be impressed by that kind of laziness.

At that point in the movie, Ted ceases to be comedy and becomes masturbation. One thing that has defined MacFarlane's work - Family Guy, American Dad, etc. - is his consumption of pop culture, which often winds up getting the best of him. He has at his disposal a vast inventory of reference points which he uses as his primary source material. The reason some of his stuff works is precisely because he knows the formulas and mechanics so well. Sometimes he's able to channel that the right way, and he comes up with a really amusing homage or musical number or absurd comedic setpiece. But as a writer (and now director), his batting average is notoriously low. He's the Mark Reynolds of comedy (or, in the spirit of Ted's '80s nostalgia, the Rob Deer of comedy). He swings at everything, usually misses, but when he gets ahold of one, he nails it. (As they say, even a broken clock . . .)

Too often, he's clever enough to come up with the references, but not clever enough to know what to do with them. Ted exemplifies all of MacFarlane's strengths and all of his weaknesses, that frustratingly aimless stream-of-consciousness principal among them.

He picks the perfect prototype for his particular sensibilities - that of the heartwarming fantasy told by a kindly British narrator. (In this case, Patrick Stewart.) In a picaresque Boston suburb on a chilly Christmas night, friendless 8-year-old John Bennett makes a wish that will change (and dictate) his life forever. After receiving a teddy bear for Christmas and naming him what any dumb 8-year-old would - Teddy (Ted for short) - he wishes his new (and only) friend to life. And lo and behold, the next morning Ted is fully animate, much to the horror of John's parents.

But they quickly get used to it - and Ted even becomes something of a minor celebrity for a while before eventually becoming old news. Twenty-seven years later, he and John are still the closest of pals. Ted has grown into a potty-mouthed pothead and John has grown (or not grown) right along with him. Ted lives with John and Lori, blissfully unaware that he's become a bit of a third wheel. John's inability to move on from his boyish attachment to Ted puts a constant strain on his relationship with Lori, who is nearing her breaking point.

The plot, of course, doesn't really matter - its formulaic trappings are just candy for MacFarlane, who fills the template with flashbacks, cutaways, in-jokes, and a barrage of throwaway gags and one-liners generally involving taboo subject matter and/or ironic nostalgia. Ted himself (voiced by MacFarlane) has some funny moments - though the funniest thing about him is the mere image of an animatronic teddy bear interacting with humans as if it's completely normal - but Wahlberg is the standout. I continue to love him in comedic roles, from his vulgar snarkiness in The Departed, to his vacant, absurdist enthusiasm in I Heart Huckabees, to his suave, shirtless silliness in Date Night, to his barely-controlled rage and self-unawareness in The Other Guys. (He was even brilliantly funny in Boogie Nights.) Wahlberg is a comedic goldmine, his earnestness as an actor playing perfectly in those straight-man roles.

There are scenes in Ted he makes tolerable by himself. But there are plenty of other scenes that remain intolerable, with MacFarlane just chucking jokes at the screen with a relentless fury, hoping some of them will stick. How many of them do? Fewer than you'd think.

With MacFarlane knowing his formula as well as he does, Ted eventually lands in the gooey, sentimental heart that the premise requires, focusing on the kinship between a man-child and his childhood friend, and asking when (if ever) boys should finally become men. Believe it or not, the film actually handles the resolution of the characters pretty well, so it gives us a good ending. But for too much of what precedes it, we get the desperate shock-jock version of MacFarlane we've come to expect all too well after years of Family Guy, of which I've watched my share. The pace set by that show is fulfilled in Ted - a few great moments here and there, offset by a lot of duds.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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