What might have made for an agreeable one-off "Saturday Night Live" sketch is stretched like taffy for 106 threadbare minutes in "Ted," "The Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane's inaugural foray in live-action feature films. His work for network television nicely fits a thirty-minute time frame and demands that his acerbic humor show a little creativity in order to make it past censors. Working in a larger R-rated format should have given him freer reignand it doesbut the looser ropes are not to his benefit. Just because MacFarlane can be, he goes crass in the extreme and aims much lower than he's capable of. There are a few sporadic jokes and wacky homages that work, but by and large he sticks closely and faithfully to rank humor of the bathroom, scatological, and psychotropic variety.
As an 8-year-old outcast who desperately yearned for a friend, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) made a Christmas wish that his new teddy bear would come to life. The magic of the cosmos pulls through, and by the next morning the stuffed animal is a walking, talking being. He shoots to fame soon after, but, as is often the case, the novelty eventually wears off for the public. Through it all, John and Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) vow to remain lifelong best friends and "thunder buddies." Twenty-seven years later, they're still going strong, watching "Flash Gordon," getting high, and talking smack. Believing that John's furry buddy is a bad influence keeping him from ever truly growing up, his girlfriend of four years, Lori (Mila Kunis), suggests that it might be time for Ted to move out. Not wanting to lose her, John begrudgingly agrees. Alas, keeping apart two platonic soul mates who haven't been apart for more than a day since they were eight is easier said than done.
There are some unexpectedly zonky bits in "Ted," all the better for writer-director Seth MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild to show off their quirkiness and knowledge of cinema. A flashback to the night John and Lori met, for instance, is a shot-for-shot (sound effects included) recall of a scene from 1980's monumental spoof movie "Airplane!" A cameo from musician Norah Jones proves what a blessedly good sport she is. When John and Ted have a falling-out, the most ruthless drag-out fight possibly ever captured on film between a human and a stuffed bear ensues. And in spite of this critic believing it to be a pretty undervalued picture in its own right, there is also a very funny slap-down of 2006's "Superman Returns
." Unfortunately, these bright spots prove to be exceptions to the film's overwhelming brand of low-rent frat-boy humor.
Once the viewer has moved past the initial shock value of seeing a cute, cuddly toy take bong hits and spit out four-letter words, there's precious little material left to explore. Derogatory racial and ethnic jokes run rampant, including two mentions of 9/11 more groan-inducing than amusing. John farts at a fancy restaurant and then takes bets on who at the next table over will react to the smell first. A gay relationship is treated as a mocking punchline without a setup, and then is repeated once more later on for no apparent reason. There is also a very strange subplot involving a deranged father (Giovanni Ribisi) and son (Aedin Mincks) who want to kidnap Ted and take him back to their lair. In an obvious nod to "The Silence of the Lambs," Ribisi is seen doing a sensual dance while watching the music video for Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now."
For a summer comedy that name-drops the Adam Sandler vehicle "Jack and Jill
" before destroying it in a single sentence, it's amazing how many of the same traps "Ted" falls into, starting with its one-joke premise. Replace an obnoxious twin sister with an obnoxious teddy bear, and they're practically interchangeable. Mark Wahlberg (2012's "Contraband
") has good fun as car rental agent John Bennett, nicely playing a do-gooder who always seems to screw up in his girlfriend's eyes. As Lori, Mila Kunis (2011's "Friends with Benefits
") is forced into the trap of being an unreasonable nag, the kind of woman who gets mad at her beau for mostly petty reasons and then refuses to listen to anything he has to say. John's and Lori's forced on-again, off-again relationship is the cause for most of the conflict; without it, the film would be twenty-two minutes long, or roughly the length of a sitcom episode sans commercials. Ted has been brought to considerable life by the wonders of CGI, and the effects are seamless; not once does he seem to not be in the same frame, interacting with the human actors. The shame is that the script doesn't match, or even comfortably pad out, the slim concept, confusing juvenile vulgarity for wit. "Ted" isn't completely barren of a heart, as the syrupy finale can attest, but the film neither warrants nor earns the kind of laughs Seth MacFarlane was aiming to provoke.