Ted may not be a comic masterpiece, but it’s a hell of a promising debut for the much-derided "Family Guy"- auteur Seth MacFarlane. He’s mainly helped by a conceit so brilliant that I’m shocked it hasn’t been done already: a young boy’s wish brings his teddy bear to life; rendering the ball of fluff into his new best friend. Flash forward a couple decades, and that boy is now an eternally adolescent used car salesman (Mark Wahlberg) and the bear, Ted (a CGI creation, voiced by MacFarlane,) is his artistically vulgar, pot-smoking, hard-drinking bro - and the two are living together in one of Boston’s most dug-in neighborhoods.
I’ve always seen "Family Guy" as a failure, its random humor - episodes are seemingly constructed from the sight joke up rather than from the plot on down - making each narrative indistinguishable from the rest. But the cinematic form honestly seems to compliment MacFarlane well. His random asides, and ability to push jokes way further than they have any right to go, works perfectly when he’s forced to construct a central narrative around them.
For proof, one need look no further than a brilliant running gag he builds around the cult classic 1980 "Flash Gordon," starting off with an oblique early reference and slowing building to homages so exuberantly indulgent and insane that I had to give in and applaud his eye for detail (he gets the visibility of the strings holding up spaceships in bad sci-fi movies just right.)
The inexplicable asides would derail a lesser movie, but to my very pleasant surprise, there’s actually something (ok, not that much) going on under the surface here. Hell, one could see "Ted" as a feature-length critique of the rash of ’man-child grows up with the help of unbelievably attractive and idealistically rendered girlfriend’ movies littering theaters nowadays. After all, what better metaphor is there for the fact that men in American movies can’t grow up than a forever-immature id brought to life as a Teddy Bear who follows our main character around like a puppy dog?
What separates this stupid-humor man-child movie from other stupid-humor man-child movies is the fact that this one actually takes the themes of those movies in a different direction. Where "Knocked Up" and "Five-Year Engagement" trade on "the love of a good woman is all a man needs to grow up" philosophies, this one laughs at the prospect of an immature middle-aged man actually being able to transform himself into something classically respectable.
That’s the trump car, along with the fact that MacFarlane’s sometimes-inspired-sometimes-infuriating-but-always-singular brand of humor can trump the comic efforts of directors like the Duplass brothers on any day. While he misses nearly as often as he hits, gags like the payoff to the aforementioned "Flash Gordon" references are more than worth the awkwardly unfunny moments. And this isn’t even to mention a man vs. teddy bear fight scene that might honestly rank up with "Haywire" and "The Raid" as some of the year’s best combat.
Unfortunately, the manic (sometimes surreal, even) humor and surprisingly apparent subtext disappear for an embarrassingly rote third-act potboiler where Giovanni Ribisi drags the film to a halt by kidnapping Ted from his rightful owner (considering the fact that Ribisi is nowhere to be found in the films posters or trailer, I imagine MacFarlane’s realized his uselessness here.)
If this film were running 85 minutes, and were about nothing more than the push-pull for Wahlberg’s life-path as he decides between his substance-abusing hooker-loving toy and his archetypal-to-a-fault motherly girlfriend (played by Mila Kunis, but really, the role is more of a plot function than a human being,) then we may have been looking at an American comedy classic.
Sadly, it instead grinds to a halt two acts in and forces you to sit through the same chase scene we’ve seen 100 times before; waiting until you’ve been deflated by unearned sentiment to let you roam the theater halls (Also, I’d be remiss in not noting that between the constantly swearing CGI main character, the unnecessary kidnapping subplot, and the overlong running time, "Ted" is pretty much "Paul" remade directly for people who aren’t nerds.) At first, the film has it all: obscure and oblique jokes, hanging on a human story that surprises you with its almost-poignancy. By the end it’s just another lame knockoff of "E.T."
But MacFarlane, who shines both as a voice actor and a director here (one party sequence will go down in legend with the most debauched bashes in cinema history, and his Scorsese-on-coke camera movements does a lot to earn the effect,) is perfectly fitted to cinema. As far as comedic filmmakers go, he’ll never be the Coen brothers or Edgar Wright. But he has enough audacity to move his camera when he feels like it (getting rarer and rarer in comedy) and his animation-background has trained him well in competently framing and blocking shots (sounds like a shallow compliment, but in our mumblecore shaky-cam cinema, this counts for a lot.)
What surprises so much is that the sentimental moments work, MacFarlane has us buying into the emotional discord between man-and-fluff better than most directors have us involved in human relationships. His only failings here are when he errs on the side of being commercial, or when his narrative takes a turn for the conventional - pretty much the ’Giovanni Ribisi as a shoehorned-in villain’ subplot, which feels like a parody of unnecessary studio-mandated plot beats. This man just needs a script as dedicated to lunacy as he is.