There are three things I now know after watching Seth MacFarlane’s (The Family Guy) first movie, ted:
1. To create a truly subversive movie, pair debauched douche bag behaviour with happy feel good 1950s Leave It To Beaver/My Three Sons-esque music
2. Giovanni Ribisi is now the go to guy for anyone looking for an actor talented enough to effortlessly portray a demented unwashed psychopath who somehow also manages to channel the bewildered sadness and anger of a damaged boy/man.
3. My childhood teddy bear, imaginatively named Teddy (even though he’s a panda) is in all likelihood a pot-smokin’, foul-mouthed slacker with a penchant for white trash prostitutes who view living room carpets as a perfectly reasonable place to go to the toilet.
While I am not entirely sure any of these new pieces of information are life lessons to last the ages (or that they lend themselves to being put to use in my day-to-day life), it is proof positive that ted is a movie that not only entertains but teaches you something too.
It may not necessarily be what Seth Macfarlane is aiming at but it’s what he achieves anyway. In amongst the copious amounts of swearing, pot smoking, off-the-wall moments of lunacy and slapstick humour (he uses “thwack” whenever anyone is punched better than anyone has since the halcyon days of the Batman TV series back in the 1960s), he manages to create nuanced characters who somehow manage to lead real, meaningful lives, punctuated by moments of deep emotional angst, and some measure of healing and resolution, all of which teach them, and by extension us, lessons about the way a life should be lived.
No mean feat when you’re stock in trade is less-than-wry social observations, gross out humour, and jokes so hilariously politically incorrect that legions of overly sensitive interest groups are dialling their lawyers to institute legal proceedings even before the opening credits have begun rolling.
I will admit that Seth MacFarlane’s brand of humour is not to everyone’s taste. At first glance, which is all many people of easily offended persuasion give him, his humour is crass, servile, and riddled with immature word play, not to mention godless to the core.
But if you take the time to press deeper, and as an aficionado of the cartoon gems that are Family Guy and American Dad, I have done just that, he is man with a keen eye for the absurdities of life, and society’s blindness to its staggering large collection of foibles, inconsistencies and hypocrisy. Moreover he is able to take those observations, and cleverly craft them into commentaries on the seismic weaknesses that riddle society, that are scathing and relentless, cloaked in a robust coating of fall-to-the-floor-laughing humour.
It’s this sensibility that he brings to ted, which is at heart, and this surprised me, a bromance between “Thunder Buddies for Life” John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), who receives ted in Christmas 1985 when he is friendless and unloved (even by the Jewish kid that everyone beats up), and his new surprisingly large plush toy. ted becomes alive thanks to desperately lonely John’s murmured wish as he drops off to sleep on Christmas night that ted could be truly alive (unwittingly doing so while a star falls, one of the unexpectedly cute moments in a movie where I expected there to be few, if any at all). They are instantly best friends … and stay so for life.
Of course what worked for a lonely 8 year old out in the suburbs of 1980s Boston does not translate well to the life of a 35 year old guy trying hard to make a relationship work with the woman everyone wants, Lori Collins (Family Guy alum, Mila Kunis). There is no doubt she cares about ted, even trying to keep up with John and ted’s weird beer-naming contests, and sympathetic to the special relationship John enjoys with his childhood pal, but in the end, after one too many acts of immature selfishness on John’s part, when he puts his friendship with ted ahead of his relationship with his girlfriend of four years, she declares enough is enough.
It is testament to the script by Seth MacFarlane’s and his long time Family Guy writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, that would could have been cardboard cutout cliched situations are reasonably nuanced and come with some emotional risk and gravitas. Not that they are perfectly handled by any means – there were some moments that were more cringe worthy than heartwarming – but by the time you get to the climactic scene (of which nothing will be said other than to say it is much more moving than I expected), you find yourself far more emotionally invested in John and ted’s friendship, and John’s imperilled relationship with Lori, than you might have suspected would be the case from the trailer.
The almost after thought threat posed by Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), an unhinged, unabashed fan of ted, from the days when the magically alive bear was a major celebrity (when he even appeared on The Johnny Carson Show after his miraculous gift of life is revealed to the world), is one of the few weak points in the movie. It really wasn’t needed, save for the way it sets up for a heart-tugging finale, and the scenes given over to ted’s time with this sick uber-fan and his fat over-indulged son could have been invested with so much more off-the-wall hilarity and witty repartee, especially given ted’s raunchy take-no-prisoners ability to more than stand up for himself.
Still the presence of Donny did serve to flesh out ted as a nuanced, real character with fears, hopes and yes, even (mostly lustful) dreams, who thankfully is seen by the rest of the world as a self-aware bear from the word go (thankfully sparing us a frustrating Sesame Street’s Mr Snuffalapagus-esque storyline where only John knows his bear is truly alive), beginning with a hilarious scene with John’s parents, where his mum declares ted’s awakening is a “Christmas miracle! It’s just like the baby Jesus!”
As you would expect, Seth MacFarlane populates the movie with a hilarious number of pop culture nuggets with a great deal of time given over to Sam Jones who played John and ted’s childhood hero Flash Gordon in the 1980s. A perfectly placed reference to Taylor Lautner of Twilight fame is finishes off the movie in classic Seth MacFarlane style.
These references which are manna from heaven for anyone with even a passing interest in popular culture, aren’t not simply there for geeks to have orgasms over. The Sam Jones scenes particularly are used to propel pivotal parts of the narrative, and underscore that Seth MacFarlane’s ted is far more sophisticated than you might initially expect.
What I loved about this funny, clever, but flawed movie, is that Seth MacFarlane, while not hitting all the targets he aims for, has crafted an unexpectedly emotionally engaging tale that subtlely draws you into ted’s world far more effectively than I would ever have thought possible. It is to be enjoyed as much for its ribald observations of life and society in general, as for its pithy and heartfelt insights into matters of the heart and the difficult business of growing up.
(Oh and to the reasonably fulsome male cinema goer who bent over to check his bag just as we were walking past him out of the cinema, thus exposing his, ah, rather hairy ass crack, thank you for providing a narratively sympathetic Seth MacFarlane ending to a Seth MacFarlane movie. Your commitment to continuing the movie’s sensibilities out into the big wide world is to be commended.)