I enjoyed Ted. On the whole, it’s a fun movie, and I laughed an awful lot, sometimes raucously. I want to make this clear up front because much of this review will sound negative, and I don’t want to leave the impression that I hate Ted. I don’t. But for the most part, what I liked about the movie can be summed up in a sentence, and what I disliked is substantially more complex. All things considered, I weigh the good and bad just about equally on this one, and I even think it’s probably worth a watch for those seeking a fun, lighthearted night at the movies.
Seth MacFarlane fans, of course, are going to love the hell out of Ted, because his voice rings loud and clear through every frame of the movie. I have no qualms saying it’s the best thing the Family Guy creator has ever done, though I must qualify that by pointing out I’ve never much cared for his work. The “throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” mentality behind his comedy produces as many duds as it does genuine laughs, often with no narrative focus to speak of, and that’s never really held my interest. But I recognize there are plenty of people out there who do appreciate his style, and if you’re one of them, Ted will be right up your alley. The things that frustrate me about Ted may be the same things that fuel your love for it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, MacFarlane’s refusal to mature his style vexes me, and it’s what ultimately stops me from giving the film a strong recommendation.
Ted is his most ambitious project yet, and he actually tries tackling some serious themes about what it means to grow up and the challenges of adult relationships. The premise itself is a simple piece of comedic subversion: A boy wishes his teddy bear to life, but instead of following their childhood antics, we pick up the story when both are in their thirties living together and getting stoned. The now adult boy, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), is entering the fourth year of his relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis), the beautiful girl of his dreams. But where Lori is successful and mature, John’s friendship with stuffed animal Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) – who has grown to be a crass, womanizing slacker – keeps him from truly ‘growing up.’ Frustrated, Lori gives John an ultimatum: either Ted moves out so they can move on with their lives, or she ends the relationship.
There’s a real story here, with characters we’re meant to invest in, and that’s what separates Ted from the majority of MacFarlane’s TV work. It’s not just a random series of gags strung together as loosely as possible; it aspires to be something more, and even if it doesn’t fully work, I respect that. The film has a sweet, palpable heart, and most importantly, I found myself caring about and enjoying all the main characters. Wahlberg and Kunis are both fantastic, at their funny and appealing best throughout the film, and though I find it distracting that Ted sounds exactly like Peter Griffin, he’s an oddly likable character in his own way.
But MacFarlane is far too distracted with the same random, pop-culture based humor that consumes Family Guy to ever say something meaningful, or to drive his story home in any memorable way. Ted is pretty much wall-to-wall jokes, and though the hit-to-miss ratio is fairly high, the lack of focus is a massive problem. He doesn’t literally cut away to another time or place for most of the gags, but there’s a frequent sense that the focus of the scene is abandoned for a cheap joke that comes out of nowhere. As I said before, that just doesn’t do anything for me; I’m much more apt to laugh at jokes that rise organically from the story or characters, and MacFarlane doesn’t seem capable of sticking to one concept long enough for anything to sink in. Just as we’re getting deep into a legitimacy sweet or funny scene, someone will make a random pop culture reference, or say something scatological, and things quickly go off the rails. It’s ironic that, for a movie about the virtues of maturation, the director can’t develop his own style enough to leave an impact.
It’s not just the jokes that get in the way of the drama; as much as MacFarlane obviously wants to say something about the difficulties of leaving childish things behind, we never get a clear sense of what that message is. John is told by other and tells himself time and time again that he has to grow up, but that’s the full extent of the film’s thematic development. The third act is especially troublesome, because thanks to a spectacularly unfunny kidnapping climax, John never has to make a significant lifestyle change. The film continually verges on a dénouement, but always cops out at the last moment so we never glean a clear sense of what John learned from these experiences. After the climactic adventure, he simply gets the girl without complications. It disturbs me, in fact, to think how much this bright, successful, beautiful woman gives up for a man who is miles below her league and, from what we’ve seen, unlikely to ascend.
I must also admit that certain elements of MacFarlane’s humor offend me. As I’ve said before, if there’s a satirical or insightful point to the joke, I don’t think comedy can go too far. But when MacFarlane’s characters shout out cold-hearted bits of anti-Semitism, or say horrible things about Asians and African-Americans, or poke fun at fat kids, or pretend gay people are disturbed sexual deviants, or resort to simplistic, borderline-misogynistic female stereotypes, no message is being conferred. MacFarlane isn’t that clever. These jokes are just there for shock value, and that upsets me.
Considering the lack of minority representation among the cast, much of Ted plays like bigoted white people making fun of anyone who’s different, and I’m not okay with that. Family Guy does the exact same thing, and it’s why I ultimately stopped watching; I just got sick of MacFarlane and company saying horrible things about different types of people for the sake of a bad joke. It’s not satire. It’s just stupidity. That Ted can’t rise above these offensive tropes proves how little MacFarlane has developed as a comedian.
All that being said, I must return to my original point. I did enjoy Ted. I did not enjoy it greatly, nor do I ever desire to see it again, but it made me laugh, I enjoyed the performances, and the special effects used to bring the title character to life are truly awe-inspiring. It is not a bad film, but it squanders an awful lot of potential, and though I won’t dissuade you from checking it out, I can’t recommend it too enthusiastically either.