Seth MacFarlane is not terribly interested in emotional epiphanies.
Photograph courtesy Universal Pictures/Tippett Studio.
Seth MacFarlane is one of the most popular and least influential voices in American comedy. Thanks to his animated hit on Fox, Family Guy—as well as a spin-off, The Cleveland Show, and another cartoon comedy, American Dad—he is “the highest-paid writer-producer in television history.” And yet, to quote another American comic, he don't get no respect. Family Guy is widely derided as a Simpsons rip-off, and the South Park guys, among others, have openly and repeatedly dismissed MacFarlane and his work. (Both their show and his often get attacked by the censors, so people frequently lump them together. Matt and Trey are not happy about this.)
Now MacFarlane’s branched out from his insular Sunday-night-on-Fox empire and made a movie, Ted, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis (who does one of the main voices on Family Guy). It also stars MacFarlane himself—or rather his voice, which he lends to the movie’s title character, a teddy bear brought to life when a young boy makes a wish. That young boy is the Wahlberg character, John Bennett, who grew up just outside Boston in the 1980s. John makes his wish at Christmas, that “special time of year,” a comically old-fashioned narrator tells us, when little boys and girls all around New England “beat up the Jewish kids.”
That punchline is the first indication (apart from the opening credits) that this is indeed a Seth MacFarlane comedy. It’s not the last: Ted, we soon learn, is one of the pint-sized balls of pure id that populate his work. Ted was briefly famous when the world learned of his existence—we even see him on Carson, where, Ted says, Ed McMahon kept muttering anti-Semitic remarks, thinking that he was Alf (and that Alf was Jewish). But he has long since faded into obscurity, living in the Back Bay with his best friend John, who works at a car rental place, where all he’s got to do, in the words of his boss, “is not fuck up.”
He does, of course: John has a penchant for ditching work so he can do bong hits with Ted and watch the 1980 live-action film version of Flash Gordon. These man-child habits have begun to tax the patience of his girlfriend Lori, played by Kunis, who works at a PR firm with several similarly attractive and well-dressed young women and a sleazy male supervisor played by Joel McHale. Thus are the familiar rom-com parameters established: John is an immature dude with a heart of gold who must outgrow his loutish friend—who happens to be plush—and hold onto his gorgeous and super put-together girlfriend, keeping her from the clutches of a more successful but obviously evil rival.
In many ways, Ted hews to this tired outline. John kicks Ted out, and, after an incident at a party, decides they can’t be friends at all. Kunis, meanwhile, who helped carry Forgetting Sarah Marshall and was charismatic and sexy in Black Swan, is wasted here, getting no real story of her own: Lori wants a ring and she’s settled on John. Her resolution is at least made slightly more plausible by John’s incarnation in the form of Mark Wahlberg; dim-witted and unambitious he may be, but the man can certainly fill out a car-rental employee uniform. And Wahlberg is charming, as always, in what is arguably his first straightforwardly comic leading role (not counting The Happening). He also does a perfectly natural Boston accent, an essential skill given how heavily MacFarlane, a Connecticut native, relies on local color.* Ted even has a big scene at the Hatch Shell—with an odd, extended cameo by Norah Jones—and, like Ben Affleck’s The Town, a climactic showdown at Fenway Park.
A rom-com with a climactic showdown at Fenway Park? Why yes. MacFarlane is not terribly interested in emotional epiphanies. Instead, he gives us a second villain: a disturbed, mustachioed man (Giovanni Ribisi) who has been obsessed with Ted since childhood, and who, late in the film, kidnaps the bear and gives him to his equally troubled son to play with. We shift into action-comedy mode, and any question of the bear being abandoned is dropped completely.
There are some laughs along the way, but this problem with story is typical of MacFarlane. (Many of Family Guy’s jokes are dropped into random cutaways from the main action.) Also typical: the sour mean-spiritedness at the heart of so much of his humor. The Jewish jokes cited above work because they’re really jokes about anti-Semitism. But when an Asian man bursts through the wall at a party brandishing a duck and a meat cleaver and says things like “This is my home long time” and “I try to make duck dinner,” it’s not a joke about racism. It’s just racism. (Earlier, Ted had noted that his new neighbors were an “Asian family, but they don’t have a gong or nothing, so it’s not that bad.”)
Similarly, a bunch of gay-panic jokes throughout the film—the Ribisi villain is unsurprisingly played as effeminate—undermine the fun of an obviously homoerotic fantasy John has about Sam Jones’ Flash Gordon. (And no, MacFarlane doesn’t get a pass just because he’s an outspoken advocate for equal marriage rights.) There’s a cruel edge to so much of MacFarlane’s comedy—the quintessential MacFarlane joke may be a punch in the face. Of which we get many in Ted: The movie’s version of the meet-cute comes when John accidentally decks Lori on a dance floor, and the show-stopping set piece is a knock-down drag-out between John and Ted in a hotel room. The latter scene bears more than a passing resemblance to the naked fight from Borat—but where the Sacha Baron-Cohen bit was done with almost unimaginable comic gusto, the MacFarlane equivalent relies on really good CGI. It is funny to watch a teddy bear wail on Mark Wahlberg. But afterward, I mostly felt beat up.
Correction, July 2, 2012: This article originally referred to Seth MacFarlane as a native of Rhode Island. He was born and raised in Connecticut. (Return to corrected sentence.)