Ted is a filthy-mouthed and fairly amusing farce about a little boy who wishes his talking teddy bear were really alive. Thanks to the magic of movies, the bear comes alive, and after a few minutes (thanks to the magic of movie editing) we pick up the boy, John (Mark Wahlberg), at age 35, still hanging out with Ted (voice of Seth MacFarlane). Over the years, Ted has matured, or immatured, into a fuzzy libertine who smokes copious amounts of weed and chases after various buxom, brainless women. John and Ted are inseparable, but John also has a girlfriend of four years, Lori (Mila Kunis), who’s beginning to get a little sick of Ted. She feels, probably rightly, that Ted is holding John back.
MacFarlane, whose Ted sounds a lot like Peter Griffin on his show Family Guy, also co-wrote and directed Ted, so expect a lot of pop-culture references and random gags. Some of them hit, some don’t. Fans of 1980’s Flash Gordon will appreciate that it’s John and Ted’s favorite film, and that its star, Sam J. Jones, puts in an extended cameo as a party-dude version of himself. Any movie that worships Flash Gordon (“It’s so bad,” John accurately sums up, “but so good”) can’t be all bad, though Observe and Report used the film’s “Football Theme” to far better effect. Anyway, other randomness is in store, such as a riff on Airplane’s riff on Saturday Night Fever, an appearance by Norah Jones (who must be a really good sport), and a character submitting happily to “gay beatings” at the hands of a recent superhero-film star (who must also be a good sport, or a Family Guy fan — indeed, he’s done a cameo on the show, too).
Political correctness is not in store, with a Chinese caricature as the noxious stand-out. Most of the laughs derive from Ted’s crude, blinkered viewpoint, which is fine up to the point where the film itself seems to share that viewpoint. Still, I laughed more than a few times; the script, which MacFarlane wrote with Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, keeps things moving and keeps the foul language coming. Ted is rightly rated R, and I was relieved not to see any little kids in the audience, brought by clueless parents who saw a talking teddy bear in the ads and thought they were in for a Teddy Ruxpin reboot. They would have much to explain to their kids, such as why Ted at one point uses hand lotion for purposes best not discussed in a family publication.
There’s a creepy subplot involving a weird dad (Giovanni Ribisi) who wants to take Ted home for his bratty son. The movie doesn’t really need this thread, and it leads to a car chase that reminded me of Pauline Kael’s almost visceral rejection of the car chase in Splash, which she otherwise loved. Said it before, say it again: Car chases (and gunfights) belong in action movies, not comedies, where they just stop the comic momentum dead. Ribisi is effective enough as a kind of anti-John, a case of arrested development that led to madness instead of John’s amiable loafing. But the plot thread still leads the third act into a sour place and an unconvincing change of heart from Lori. (Mila Kunis does hold her own in an otherwise blithely sexist movie, creating something relatable out of what could’ve been the Katherine-Heigl-in-Knocked Up killjoy who pulls the man-child away from childish things — and childish friends.)
Ted is painless, and not as smarmy as it seems, though I would have liked to see more of Joel McHale as Lori’s goatish boss, Matt Walsh as John’s Tom Skerritt-obsessed boss, and Bill Smitrovich as Ted’s amusingly lax boss — you have enough material with these three for Horrible Bosses 2. One impressive feat is that we never question Ted’s reality; Wahlberg plays off him naturally, and the special effects used to create him are seamless. Ted is just taken as a given, briefly a media superstar, trading quips with Johnny Carson, until, as Patrick Stewart’s narration puts it far less politely, nobody cares any more and Ted is more or less treated by everyone as nothing all that special. This is how fantasy should be done more often: not much awe or terror, just “Oh, okay, that’s sort of cool” until a shinier media fixation comes along. Ted gets that much right, at least: Ted would be hot stuff for a season, then dwindle to a curiosity, then be forgotten. Sam J. Jones might know the feeling.