Monday, July 9, 2012
TED is Funnier Than Your Average Bear
- Way back in the day, in a time seemingly remembered by few ... a little show called FAMILY GUY burst onto the scene ... and it was friggin' hilarious. Back when it debuted, I was floored by Family Guy and how funny it was. I sung its praises, quoted it to friends, made sure to watch it each week on FOX. This was it - the next great thing in TV comedy, the new funniest thing ever. Sadly, few others seemed to hop aboard the bandwagon. Few were watching the show, and it was cancelled after a few too-brief seasons. As years passed though, somehow, Family Guy became the posterchild for second chances in the newly-dawning DVD age. The show became a cult phenomenon on home video, and while I was in college those DVDs were a staple of dorm rooms everywhere. Finally, the writing (and dollar signs) were on the wall. In an nearly unprecendented move, FOX brought back Family Guy with all-new episodes, and it's been a mainstay of FOX Sunday nights ever since - and a ratings winner to boot. But something happened in the years since Family Guy returned to the air ... it just wasn't as funny as it used to be. In fact, the show increasingly became self-parody, devolving so as to become more mean-spirited, more pointlessly crude, more repetitive, and - at times - more annoyingly preachy, than during its pre-cancellation creative peak. At the same time, Seth MacFarlane, the show's creator, franchised himself out. He created two new series for FOX, began popping up in all sorts of other movies and TV shows, and where once he was a rebel of edgy television, he was now a self-styled billionaire with his own animation empire. And that brings me to TED.
Ted is the first major motion picture written and driected by MacFarlane. And commercially, of course, there's never been a better time to be part of brand MacFarlane. But what about creatively? Would this be the breath of fresh air to big-screen comedy that FG was to small-screen comedy back in the day? Or would Ted have the same sort of feel as latter-day episodes of MacFarlane's shows ... occasionally worth a laugh, but mostly just coasting?
Well, I'm happy to say that TED is 90% old-school MacFarlane. It's often funny as hell, and it actually is refreshing. Because let's face it, most big-screen comedies are pretty dumb. But MacFarlane is a very, very smart guy, and when he's on, there's an intelligence to even his most random gags that you don't see a lot of elsewhere. So, sure, Ted could have been a just-plain-dumb movie, given its premise, if it'd been made by, say, Happy Madison. But there's a sharpness to the writing that elevates it. And there's that old, Family Guy-style penchant for pop-culture references that tap that particular vein of Gen X and Gen Y-skewing hilarity. This is MacFarlane very nearly bringing his A-game.
The story of TED is classic comedy-as-fairy-tale. When a young boy named John makes a Christmas Day wish for his toy teddy bear to come to life, the wish is magically granted, and the bear - named Ted - becomes a living, breathing thing, and John's new best-buddy. John was a bit of a friendless outsider as a kid, so he and Ted became inseparable. And this was true even as John and Ted got older. Now, John is a 35-year-old dude who works at a car rental service, gets stoned a lot, and watches a lot of DVD's ... and Ted is right there with him. In fact, Ted is sort of the enabler of the pair. As an "adult" teddy bear, Ted is the ultimate man-child: lazy, perpetually high, irresponsible, and a bit of a perv. He's a bad influence on John, who's trying to get his life together so as not to lose his impossibly-cool girlfriend Lori. But if keeping Lori means losing Ted, John finds himself torn between his childhood pal and the girl he wants to spend the rest of his life with.
First off, Mark Wahlberg owns it in this movie. This is the funniest he's ever been on camera. His comic timing is spot-on, and his interplay with the MacFarlane-voiced, CGI-animated Ted is consistently hilarious. Playing up a goofy accent for laughs can sometimes get old fast, but there's just enough subtlety in Wahlberg's Boston dialect to make it that much funnier when it's used to accent some of the movie's more madcap dialogue exchanges. MacFarlane is basically just doing the Peter Griffin voice (he even points it out in a bit of meta-humor in the film), but it works pretty well here. And Mila Kunis, as Lori, is very likable and oftentimes very funny herself. No stranger to MacFarlane's warped brand of humor, Kunis seems totally game for anything, and does a nice job of playing Lori as frustrated, yet still likable (i.e. she comes off as reasonable, and not merely cold - as easily could have happened with a lesser actress in the part).
Meanwhile, there are some nice supporting turns here. Joel McHale is an obvious standout as Rex, Lori's sleazy douche of a boss. Giovanni Ribisi is also creepy and just out-there as a strange stalker of Ted's, who figures heavily into the film's third act when he decides to bear-nap the object of he and his son's obssession. I'll also mention Bill Smitrovich, who has a small but hilarious part as Ted's boss at a local grocery store. And the list of additional cameos is jam-packed with big names and small names and just plain random names. The big highlight that is a total scene-stealer is Sam Jones, who is best known as Flash Gordon from the ultra-cheesy, camp-classic 70's version of the movie. A major joke of the film is John and Ted's fixation with Flash Gordon, and the joke has an incredible payoff when Flash himself appears. Don't worry, that's not a spoiler, because the real, jaw-dropping fun begins when Jones gets screentime and just goes off-the-rails, providing, perhaps, the film's biggest, most gut-busting laughs.
As mentioned, MacFarlane's script really shines. The best bits are all the semi-random exchanges between the characters, especially when they go off on tangents in classic MacFarlane style. It's a dense script packed with jokes, and it's full with pop-culture references and asides and random bits of absurdity.
The one weakness here is one that tends to plague certain episodes of Family Guy - that being MacFarlane's tendency to veer wildly from crass, sometimes mean-spirited absurdist humor to attempts at legitimate sentimentality and heart. When talking about Family Guy, people often point to classic episodes of The Simpsons as examples of a series delicately interweaving genuine heart and pathos into the framework of satirical and oftentimes absurdist comedy. But subtlety isn't MacFarlane's strongpoint, and he tends to go for both big, crazy laughs and also big "aww shucks, sniffle sniffle" moments. And sometimes that is a bit jarring, and occasionally off-putting. The truth is, you can often see - even with FG - that MacFarlane's creative mind is sort of being pulled in two very different directions. Part of him is very much a traditionalist, with a genuine affection for old sitcom and family comedy tropes. And part of him likes nothing more than to subvert those tropes and go as far away from traditional as possible. Suffice it to say, the juxtaposition can get a bit messy. It can also lead to stretches devoid of good jokes - or any jokes - because things have suddenly gotten serious. I'll also mention that the Ribisi bear-napping plot, while very funny at times, appears a bit too sporadically for a thread that is key to the movie's climax.
Overall though, TED has enough memorable and really-friggin'-funny moments that it is, easily, one of the best and most laugh-out-loud comedies of the year so far. While MacFarlane can have some annoying tendencies as a writer, this is an example where he mostly reigns them in and reminds us all why he became one of the biggest names in comedy in the world. Wahlberg, Kunis, and Flash by-god Gordon are the perfect compliments to MacFarlane's vision. It's safe to say that Mr. MacFarlane's big-screen career is off to a pretty damn good start.
My Grade: B+