I tried to see “The Dark Knight Rises” in time for this week’s column, but that turned out to be a fool’s errand. But never fear — we’ll be looking at the summer’s most anticipated release next time, which I suppose is just as well considering that many viewers will wait until the crowds thin out a bit to see it anyway.
So this week, in lieu of “Ice Age: Continental Drift” (because really, does anyone over the age of 7 even care at this point?), we’ll be playing catch-up with Seth MacFarlane’s feature debut, “Ted,” which has shocked everyone by racking up about $200 million in domestic box office receipts over the course of the past few weeks. It’s the surprise smash of the summer, and although it’s far from a comedic masterpiece, the film is deserving of the attention.
Seth MacFarlane — creator, writer and star of the animated television series “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” — may be one of the most polarizing figures in mainstream comedy. His critics include not only the uptight “family values” whack-jobs who lament the fact that such crudity is allowed on the airwaves at all, but also many younger, ostensibly more “hip” viewers who say that MacFarlane’s shtick has worn thin in the decade or so since he first came on the scene. He has many admirers, myself included, and “Family Guy” and “American Dad” remain two of the most popular animated sitcoms on TV. But anecdotal evidence must count for something, and I find it interesting that I’ve never encountered anyone in real life who professes to be a fan of either show.
“Ted” may be just what MacFarlane needed to bolster his reputation among mainstream audiences. It relies on the writer/director’s familiar brand of humor (more sex and potty jokes than you can shake a stick at, in addition to a deluge of profanity, general vulgarity and extraordinarily politically incorrect gags involving everything from child abuse to mental retardation), but it is tempered with an uncharacteristically warm-hearted, borderline-wholesome sweetness. The film is also more fully formed and cohesive than you might expect from the man responsible for the notoriously slapdash, chaotic “Family Guy.” It’s a definite step forward for MacFarlane, and considering the massive box office success it had generated, it is likely that MacFarlane will have the opportunity to continue his artistic growth.
“Ted” offers up a simple but novel concept: John, a lonely young boy in the early 1980s who longs for a real friend, makes a Christmas wish that brings his stuffed teddy bear to life. This contradiction of all known laws of biology and physics makes John and Ted overnight celebrities, appearing on magazine covers and making the rounds on TV talk shows. But they discover that fame, like everything else, fades over time. Jumping to the present day, we find that John (Mark Wahlberg, oddly miscast) and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) have both pretty much bottomed-out in life, spending the vast majority of their time in front of the TV, smoking weed and cracking crude jokes while the world passes them by. This slacker lifestyle doesn’t jive with John’s girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), who demands that John sever ties with Ted in order to finally “grow up” and be a man instead of an overgrown boy who still plays with his teddy bear. But is the lure of a perpetual childhood too much for John to resist?
Like I said, a novel concept. But a good idea only goes so far, and unfortunately in this case the concept is slightly better than the execution. There is plenty of “inappropriate” humor to go around, but I would have liked to see MacFarlane truly take advantage of the near-total freedom offered by an R-rated feature. He could have gone a lot further with some of this material (particularly a subplot involving Ted’s abduction by an obsessed fan and his horrible son which amounts to little more than wasted time, even if it does provide the foundation for the best joke in the film), but in the end pulls back just a tad to avoid offending audiences too much. I say if you’re going to do something, then do it. Commit yourself and don’t look back. With a little more boldness and fewer morals, MacFarlane could have created a modern classic. Instead, he settles for a noble effort.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.