Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review: "Ted"

A firmly established name in the world of TV, it was only a matter of time until Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy and American Dad made the jump to live-action film making. Both of his shows have strong followings (Family Guy remains popular despite its general decline, while American Dad is becoming more popular) and with the resurgence of R-rated comedies over the past decade, the transition only makes sense. MacFarlane's signature brand of non sequiturs, bawdy humor, and varying degrees of pop culture references certainly has its critics (even among the fan base), and as such, your opinion of Ted likely hinges somewhat on how you feel about MacFarlane's work so far. Almost. For even though Ted builds its humor more out of the situation (despite the references) a la American Dad, the success rate and overall execution call to mind the recent seasons of Family Guy: moments of inspired hilarity weighed down by awkward plotting and attempts at humor that are only partially successful or that fall flat.

Opening with voice over about humanity's belief in magic, MacFarlane firmly establishes that Ted takes place in the live-action reality that the clans of Peter Griffin and Stan Smith would live in were they not animated. Like MacFarlane's signature shows (as well as that unfortunate mess that is The Cleveland Show), Ted involves a sentient, non-human creature. Instead of an entirely organic creation like Brian the dog or Roger the alien, however, this time the non-human role is a teddy bear belonging to the friendless John Bennett (who will grow up to be played by Mark Wahlberg, so life's not so bad...). Upon seeing a shooting star, young John wishes that he and his Teddy bear will stay friends forever. Lo and behold, the next morning, John discovers that Ted has come to life. Though Ted's existence quickly catches on and he becomes a media sensation, the two remain close friends, never separating.

Jump forward a few decades, and John is 35, stuck in a dead end job but blessed with a disproportionately sexy girlfriend named Lori (Mila Kunis). Lori and John are close, but she's not exactly keen on one part of John's life: the fact that Ted, now a foul-mouthed pot smoker, still lives with John, and seems to keep him anchored in a state of perpetual man-boyhood. And, despite the fact that the film is live-action, adjusting to MacFarlane's world is surprisingly easy. Having the film establish Ted's "birth" of sorts and then jump forward essentially removes any of the tedium involved in having to go through the typical cope-with-the-extraordinary-circumstances shtick. This gives Ted a more relaxed feel, one where the magical talking teddy bear can function as a character, rather than a plot device.

But if the set up is decently handled, everything from that point on is a mixed bag. When MacFarlane's shows are on their A-game, they are, for all of their flagrant disregard for anything remotely PC,  actually pretty damn funny. American Dad in particular can be an absolute riot, seeing as it forgoes the excessive cutaway jokes and develops humor simply out of the ridiculousness of the situations and the characters involved in them. Unfortunately, Ted feels more like an iffy episode of Family Guy stretched out for a feature film. Some lines that have the potential to be funny only register a minor 'ha,' while others just sink. Even when the material clicks, there's a certain taut zaniness that's missing from the situations and set ups. One could make the argument that this is simply because we're getting acquainted to the characters, whereas TV shows have time to build up their characters. The problem, in reality, has more to do with the pacing and plotting than with the characters. 

Take, for example, a subplot involving a man who has been obsessed with Ted since he first saw him on the news (Giovanni Ribisi). After the character's introduction, he appears only briefly in one other scene, before coming back to incite a kidnapping subplot to give the film a climax. Other scenes, like those involving John interacting with his co-workers (among them Patrick Warburton and Veep's Matt Walsh), feel like they're desperately trying to branch off and become their own (really awful) sitcom. Mila Kunis may get the short end of the stick when it comes to funny material, but at least when the film follows her at work, the film has a perfectly obnoxious Joel McHale to liven things up.

Unfortunately, Mark Wahlberg is tasked with being too much of a straight man, and even when the film puts him in funny scenes, the character remains marginally entertaining at best. This means that it's up to Ted to be the source of humor, and the character proves he's not quite up to the task. Some of the material is funny, but even some of the best material is never fully successful. A massive drunken party at Ted's apartment packs some of the film's best laughs, but is undermined by moments that either go too far or are just plain bad. Many of the attempts at pop culture references also fall flat, including the recurring use of actor Tom Skerritt. At its worst, the film throws in split second jabs that feel lazy (an insult thrown at Katy Perry's singing lands with a particularly loud 'thud'). Only a handful of shots of Ribisi doing some absolutely loopy dance moves in front of a TV provide consistent laughs.

It doesn't really help matters that some of the editing lags and the whole production looks rather drab. The awkward smudgy glow of digital pervades so many of the shots, as if no one had any intention of making the film look decent. Only Walter Murphy's boisterous score works, and helps lend an old-fashioned sense of energy to the cartoonish shenanigans. Overall, though, MacFarlane's exploration of growing up a few decades too late is too uneven to fully succeed. The initial conceit may feel fresh, but it doesn't take long for it to settle for being too familiar, without enough successful humor to make up for it.

Grade: C

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