There is little doubt that despite the clueless debacle of his hosting a major film award program, Seth MacFarlane is a talented fellow, though with talent comes great responsibility to that talent, and as is often the case, sadly, Mr. MacFarlane’s reach seldom exceeds beyond his grasp of his own genitalia. In his motion picture directorial debut “Ted”, MacFarlane seizes upon the condition of permanent juvenilia, but without the prerequisite running of the ball, so to speak. In his tale of an eight-year-old boy who is granted his wish of a “real” friendship by his teddy bear assuming anthropomorphized animation, the fledgling director is constantly undone by his own script limitations: MacFarlane’s annoying habit of seizing upon an amusing concept, convincing himself it is of limitless potential and then running that concept into the ground all the while increasingly satisfied with his own cleverness in direct proportion to the desperate thinness of the humor becoming more and more apparent.
“Ted” opens promisingly with the initial scenes of the innocent young John Bennett and his talking ‘Ted’ leaping into comic juxtaposition of an adult John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (voiced by the director) who are now far cruder and certainly wasted by bongs and beer, but more importantly, never maturing beyond the naively uninhibited nature of the age when they first bonded; a situation which is the comic fuel behind the story, the age-old tale of the man who has never grown up, though without the additional layers of childhood cruelty that might expose a more malignant facet to this particular formula. MacFarlane’s conception of Johnny and Ted is generously, and wisely, bereft of malicious characteristics as, despite their sometimes more silly than crude behavior, they are a pair of softies. Neither Johnny nor Ted wish harm on anyone, they simply have never learned to rein in their more childish impulses.
However, while this is a perfectly effective springboard from which the film might blossom, it becomes increasingly evident that the fullest potential to be mined from this shaggy dog fairy-tale concept eludes the filmmaker. Except for the film’s penchant in finding the overabundant frequency of expletives emerging from the title teddy hilarious, an idea which seems to delight the ten-year-old in MacFarlane, the prevailing intent of his film’s direction affords little room to expand his comic conception into areas outside of the tired narrative tropes so prevalent in depressing contemporary comedy: mainly the introduction of a pair of deviant lowlifes who will certainly return (they do) to take over the entire last third of the film, which has absolutely nothing to do with what has previously occurred, and reduces the possibility of a charmingly impolite comedy into a tired, confused and dreary chase film. What is MacFarlane thinking, or is he? By outright abandonment of his central comic premise for great lengths of time, the film’s building arc of humor takes a nosedive, especially with an additionally meaningless subplot involving Johnny’s girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) and her sexually harassing boss Rex, played by that definition of vacuous smugness Joel McHale, a corrosively diluting red herring of a plot which leads the film’s momentum to a complete dead end. Equally perplexing is a lengthy sequence at the Boston Hatch Shell featuring Norah Jones (the film is peppered with irrelevant cameos, suggesting the director is cleaning out his Rolodex) which not only stops the movie dead in its tracks, but also becomes an occasion for both Johnny and Ms. Jones to be needlessly ridiculed. Even a party scene featuring “Flash Gordon” star Sam J. Jones (that horrid film represents a fanaticism of heroic imagery to both Johnny and Ted, an ideal which is never remotely for either explored for its full comic potential nor any insight into its admirers) begins with promise, but immediately degenerates into an extended unfunny fistfight (there are at least four in the film) with Mr. Jones evolving into an eventual object of ridicule by MacFarlane. (Is it something in the name Jones?)
Considering the solid premise and conceptualization of its main pair of protagonists, the film is aided immeasurably by the initial genuine sweetness of the romance between Johnny and Lori, that is until the script finds the need to invent excuses to yank them apart, a decision which not only fractures the possibilities of developing the central human relationship, but makes the sensible Lori something of a contradiction, with her sudden aversion of Johnny’s less-than-reliable sense of responsibility finding respite in the company of the repulsive sexist Rex. That this makes little sense is acknowledged by the film when Lori simply abandons her boss and returns to Johnny just in time for the film’s truly unraveled final third, where the film takes a decidedly ugly turn with misplaced abusive associations, psychopathic criminality and virtual animal abuse. The early introduction of the seedy (Giovanni Ribisi) and his idiot progeny (Aedin Mincks) sets off alarm bells as it is fairly evident they have been implanted into the film for a reason: to eventually swing the film into an all too familiar detour of creative desperation with supposedly comic crime and chase elements which are not only not funny, but out of an entirely different film. Is it possible that MacFarlane can be so insecure with his material that he’s grasping at the straws of cliché to ensure a finale more cinematic (read: action oriented) rather than following through in the more difficult but potentially more satisfying comedy of character? Might it also be possible that the screenwriters, who also happen to be the writing force on television’s “Family Guy”, are incapable of sustaining a concept over the period of thirty minutes? Or could it simply be freshman film maker jitters? A great deal of comedy material successfully connecting with an audience comes from surprise, yet if the crudity becomes predictable, it’s likely the jokes will begin to thud with alarming frequency: the first incident of Ted sampling a bong or casually mouthing obscenities may be disarmingly amusing, but any entertainment value is bound to suffer with the constant repetition. The writers submarine the film with their narrative distractions every time the film comes close to achieving any sense of genuine emotional intimacy, a situation that MacFarlane and his writing partners clearly prefer to submerge with tackiness and kinetic action sequences which have nothing to do with developing their three main characters, but keeps something as uncool as sentiment a sarcastic arm’s distance away.
Despite these deficiencies, there are some very impressive things about “Ted”, not the least of which are the performances of Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, both appealing in their ability to convincingly interact with what is, in essence, a feature length special effect. The animation of Ted is, in fact, so expert, it manages to do something the script is incapable of accomplishing: sustaining a sense of believability in the title character to where his presence is actually taken for granted, and by extension of this credibility, create the illusion of a genuine, magical breach of what we know to be real: the stuff of dreams. Only in Hollywood could a talking teddy bear ring truer than the people creating him.