Here’s a tip if you are planning on going to see Ted, the feature film directorial debut of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Give the 1980 version of Flash Gordon a quick watch. Without giving away too many spoilers, the film is an important one in the lives of John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted, the stuffed teddy bear that Bennett magically wished to life when he was a boy. The film serves as the basis for a couple of jokes as well as a plot point or two. (No a crazy, bearded scientist doesn’t kidnap them on a home-built rocketship to Mongo.) Having the film somewhat fresh in your mind will certainly help with appreciating those moments.
But that’s not to say that the film is entirely dependent on a parade of pop culture references, a charge that has been fired at MacFarlane’s Family Guy by its critics. If anything, Ted is a combination romantic comedy, bromance and very fractured fairytale. It is also a very funny and raunchy film that still manages to have some sweetness at its core.
An avuncular narrator informs us at the beginning of the film that following the initial media explosion of Ted’s miraculous appearance, he slipped back into relative obscurity, “like Corey Feldman”. And now, 25 years later, he is still John’s best friend. They share an apartment, get high and still watch their favorite movie from childhood – Flash Gordon. And although the pair may have physically moved from the suburbs to downtown Boston, their lives have not progressed much further.
Surprisingly, even though John works the counter at a local car rental agency, he has managed to land himself a fairly successful girlfriend in the form of Lori (Mila Kunis). On the eve of their fourth anniversary of dating, Lori tells John that they need to take their relationship to the next level and that includes diamond rings and Ted getting his own place. John reluctantly agrees and even though Ted moves into a rather dingy apartment above a Chinese takeout place, John still spends an inordinate amount of time with his furry buddy, to the point where Lori breaks up with John in exasperation. However, the two reunite when Ted finds himself the target of some unwanted attention from a stalkerish former fan and his son.
As expected, MacFarlane plums every situation for laughs and never is satisfied with just giving us the first one he finds. Many sequences, such as an out-of-control party at Ted’s apartment and a fight between Ted and John in a hotel room, continue to build and escalate to absurd levels. And kudos should be given out to the handful of celebrities who cameo as, and poke fun at, themselves.
But MacFarlane manages to ground the high concept and silly shenanigans with some strong character writing for the three leads. Unlike many movie couples, where you only believe that they are together for the sake of the plot, the relationship between John and Lisa feels very natural and sweet. MacFarlane’s script gives the couple moments that hint at their long relationship and Wahlberg and Kunis’s chemistry together sells it easily. When it comes time for Lori to insist that Ted move out, there is a hint of sadness revealing that although she feels what she is asking is the right thing for everyone, she still realizes that she is coming between two great friends. It could have been very easy to make her seem like a bitch at this point, but MacFarlane goes for a more nuanced moment. For his part, Wahlberg delivers his best comedic performance yet and manages to enhance it with some pathos when he finds himself torn between Lori and Ted.
While some might dismiss the film’s high concept of a talking teddy bear as just another in a long line of talking non-human characters that have appeared in his work, MacFarlane manages to use the relationship between Ted and John as a metaphor for the pressure to leave behind childish things when one reaches adulthood. It’s an additional layer one doesn’t normally expect to find in a summer comedy, and its inclusion is welcome.
The weakest portion of the film is the plotline involving the creepy father and son who bear-nap Ted. This is what drives most of the third act and although it does help to resolve the relationship issues between Ted, John and Lori, it still manages to feel a bit tacked on and perhaps could have been more strongly set up earlier in the film.