06 July 2012

A BOY AND HIS BEAR WILL ALWAYS BE TOKING

I would like to think that I'm pretty close to the exact polar opposite of the ideal viewer of Ted: writer-director Seth MacFarlane's trademark non-sequitur humor is like nails on a chalkboard to me (unlike many people, I don't even like the allegedly good early seasons of Family Guy); I find that the current trend in R-rated humor to indulge in sexist, homophobic, and racist gags less out of actual sexism, homophobia, or racism, than because it's an easy way so shock the audience is just plain lazy, setting aside issues of taste and morality completely (the last time it was actually funny was what, Borat?); and the film's central gimmick, that the word "fuck" and pot-smoking are inherently funnier simply because an anthropomorphic CGI bear is involved doesn't hit my sweet spot at all. So the fact that Ted ended up balanced right on knife edge of my "6/10, and it was fine" vs. "6/10, and kind of weak" rating is nothing shy of a minor miracle. Regulars will recognise the Left-Aligned Poster of Recommendation, and I will confess that this otherwise intractable tie was broken largely because I find it tiring to have the comments flooded with defensive fanboys, and the content of the pull-quote doesn't really matter overmuch as long as it's a round red tomato and not a green splat on the Rotten Tomatoes page. And now that I've explained my critical process, none of you will ever respect me again.

So, Ted. As is the wont of MacFarlane projects, it features a grown man paired with an incongruous, short fantasy sidekick; specifically, we are here in the company of 35-year-old Boston layabout John Bennett (Mark Whalberg), who once, 27 years ago, made a wish that his big stuffed teddy bear would come to life; this wish was granted by a beneficent universe, and all these years later, that bear (voiced and played in performance capture by MacFarlane) remains John's roommate and slacking buddy; together the boys smoke pot, tell dirty joke, and resume smoking pot. This Edenic idyll is interrupted only because John is head-over-heels in love with Lori (Mila Kunis), who has all the patience in the world but still kind of would like it if her boyfriend of four years would finally maybe push Ted out and grow up a little bit. Sort of like a Judd Apatow production, only instead of depicting with sagacious approval the protagonist's growth into being a responsible adult male, Ted does somewhat let John off the hook, in a weird way: he gets all the growth and development, and then in the end the movie implicitly says, "nah, that's okay, go back to how you were".

Which is as much to say: don't bother looking for thematic density. You shall be disappointed by what you find. As is true of so very many American comedies, particularly the R-rated ones, Ted is at its absolute worst when it tries to have actual, real content; the wobbly-executed "man-child becomes a man" theme is certainly an example, as is the inexplicable and fantastically unnecessary intrusion of a thriller subplot in the film's last quarter, which does nothing but inflate the piece to a 106-minute running time that it does not deserve (is there a living soul who would have bitched about a 90-minute Seth MacFarlane feature?), while also ruining the tone of everything that has gone before, and frequently worked. The only possible justification I can dream up is that Ted is completely obsessed with 1980s pop culture - the legendarily gaudy Dino De Laurentiis version of Flash Gordon is an important recurring motif - and there was that weird thing in the 1980s where plenty of innocuous-looking comedies suddenly turned into cruel-minded action films just in time for their third act. It didn't work in any of those, and it doesn't work in Ted, but at least this permits us to declare it conceptually sound.

But still, hugely pointless. The chief appeal of the film, incontestably, is all the early scenes of John and Ted hanging out and saying crude things; the shock value of seeing a big fluffy teddy bear cursing and getting high and making leering sexual gags providing most of the comedy, while the startlingly easy rapport that Whalberg and a CGI effect share provides the warmth. I must say this on the film's behalf: while it certainly wallows in the random-for-randomness's-sake jokes that make Family Guy such a slog - literally the very first actual joke in the whole movie comes when the silky-voiced narrator (no less an authoritative presence than Patrick Stewart!) recounts the traditional Boston Christmas tradition of beating up the local Jewish kid, a joke that represents all of the worst tendencies of the film's comedy and none of the good ones - much of Ted's humor is character- and situation-based, growing increasingly sharp and funny as we get a better sense of the main characters' relationship with one another. And sure, all that a lot of that context does is to let us know that, indeed, Ted is prone to saying rude things, but at least it feels like that's part of who he is, rather than him simply being a construct that permits MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Silkin & Wellesly Wild to be arbitrarily politically incorrect.

Another big point in the film's favor, and one I was honestly not expecting at all: the filmmakers commit to their premise in a big way. Ted is, at all points, a talking teddy bear come to life through magic: this is a fact known to all the characters and the world at large (he was briefly a celebrity in the '80s; this is not a thread that gets much of a workout, though a scene where he "meets" Johnny Carson is notable for reminding us that what was bleeding-edge technology less than 20 years ago in Forrest Gump, now can be used for a quickie gag in a frat comedy). He never drifts into being just a little gimmicky person; his plush toy nature remains an important element of his character throughout. Moreover, the visual effects used to put Ted in with the real people are absolutely superb; most massive tentpole effects-driven extravaganzas don't nearly such consistent or believable effects work - Ted is a detailed, thoughtful cartoon character, who interacts with his surroundings in such a nuanced and particular way that in hardly any time at all, it stops even really registering that he's not "there".

Minimally, then, we cannot accuse the filmmakers of laziness. Ted is a work of love and passion, believed in by the people who put it together; and while we may or may not agree that this much time and emotional energy is useful for a project whose signature moments involve a teddy bear discussing his sexual history, I will defend to the death MacFarlane's right to make the best possible version of that character that current technology allows. It shows in the finished project: this is a movie they believed in. God bless 'em.

6/10

6 comments:

Colin said...

For me, the genius (that's right, genius) of Seth MacFarlane isn't the randomness or the non-sequiturs or the potty humor but a certain cadence, a certain rhythm to his character's rants and diatribes, that is as unique and as instantly recognizable as "Seth MacFarlane" as a Wes Anderson movie is instantly recognizable as "Wes Anderson" - that, and an impulse to pursue jokes past their obvious punchlines into a more nebulous territory where they often seem as though they are in danger of fizzling, and then pulling a second, or even third, less obvious punchline seemingly out of thin air, an impulse that strikes me as sort of intellectually brave and even highbrow, even if the content of those jokes is decidedly lowbrow. Don't get me wrong. I have every faith in the accuracy of your judgment of "Ted" as merely "fine". No defensive fanboy, I. But I do think - or at least I hope - that someday Seth MacFarlane will do the really brave thing, forsake his lowbrow roots, and surprise us all with a movie on par with Woody Allen. But, like the protagonist of "Ted", he first has to grow up.

KingKubrick said...

Colin,

I respect your right to your opinion. I laughed at a few Family Guy episodes in the early seasons so I can understand the appeal but Woody Allen is one of the greatest, if not the greatest screenwriting genius in the history of Cinema. I'm not even attempting to be hyperbolic. Maybe MacFarlane has it in him, Allen wasn't a genius out of the gate, but it's a long, long shot.

Tim said...

Colin- Oh, I'm certainly not saying that pro-MacFarlane sentiments are unwelcome; I just suspect that the ones that would come in from a rotten link would be less constructive than some. I do agree that the man can write a good snatch of dialogue - I don't like to give away good jokes in reviewing comedies, but there's an exchange early on involving the phrase "hugging gun" that was, I thought hilarious. That said...

-KingKubrick
...Woody Allen is in a class above everybody else, and I even thing his "early funny ones" had quite a lot of out-and-out genius in them, unless by "out of the gate" you mean his wobbly '60s stuff and not his pre-Annie Hall run as a writer-director.

Zev- There are better Wahlberg performances out there, but he's still definitely "good". There is certainly less Pinocchio in it than you might think.

Colin said...

OK, so I was probably overreaching with the Woody Allen comparison. And I'll admit my high opinion of him is as informed, if not more informed, by what I know of him from interviews as it is by his works. But I think the man is incredibly smart, incredibly talented, and incredibly creative, and if he's limited by anything it's lack of ambition, or fear of accusations of pretentiousness, or of having sold out, from his fratboy fan base, or something. And KingKubrick, it's actually the later episodes of Family Guy, when MacFarlane started becoming less concerned with narrative, that I find funniest.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I really *do* like early Family Guy stuff, but that's very easy to forget, since the later stuff is just incredibly lazy. Also, the misogyny. Oh, the misogyny. That shit is enough to sour me on the man for good.

JD said...

When Family Guy first came out, it really did seem edgy (to me, at least)--I had never seen anything that crass or grotesque on broadcast TV, and cutaways and funny-unfunny-funny again jokes seemed new. It routinely generated a great deal of controversy, and got axed after the third season, leaving people to wonder how much futher it would've pushed the envelope.

But then it came back from the dead, saw the TV landscape move towards more graphic stuff (CSI, I'm looking at you), spawned imitators (and had The Simpsons move towards grosser humor), got syndicated on a number of channels and saw two further series created by the same man.

So the original episodes lost their impact because they no longer seemed fresh, and the new episodes try to make up for it by going back to a dry well for another fight scene/cutaway gag/blood-and-guts/one-joke character bit, or being lazily offensive under the guise of being "edgy."

And that's why I can't stand to watch "Family Guy" anymore. That, and the character design and animation is absolutely hideous.