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Thursday, July 05, 2012

TED (2012)

Big pimpin' with a little stuffed bear.

Christmas, 1985: A lonely eight-year-old boy longs for nothing more than a friend and when he receives a plush teddy bear as a holiday gift, he adores the toy and makes a wish that it could talk to him for real and that they would be best friends forever. The wish comes true and the boy and his bear share a tight bond from then on, even through the animate toy's brief period of '80's-era fame. 2012: The boy has grown up to be the thirty-five-year-old John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a man-child pothead whose job at a car rental agency is only a break in his time spent watching repeated viewings of the 1980 FLASH GORDON movie, drinking beers and smoking copious amounts of weed with his now-older, semi-worn, foul-mouthed talking toy bear roommate, Ted (voiced by Seth McFarlane). It's a total bromance and the two clearly love and depend upon one another, but the fly in the ointment of their arrested developmental bliss is Lori (Mila Kunis), John's live-in girlfriend whom he's dated for four years and who is quite understandably fed up with Ted's ubiquity in her lover's life. (NOTE: Lori is in no way a bitch or a villain, so the audience totally understands her very reasonable feelings on the matter.) She everything a guy could want and during the fancy dinner date to mark their fourth anniversary as a couple, Lori expects a proposal but instead receives earrings. That prompts her to float the idea that John should ask Ted to move out so the lovers can have a life with just the two of them sharing a place (and hopefully spur John to finally grow up), a prospect that does not sit well with either John or Ted.

But a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do, so Ted and John reluctantly agree to part for the sake of John's relationship with Lori, consequently establishing Ted in his own dinky flat and getting him a job at a local supermarket (where Ted's meteoric rise in the store's hierarchy is chronicled in amusingly ludicrous detail). Though he gives it his best shot, John finds life without his constant companion of twenty-seven years to be quite difficult, and vice-versa for Ted, so the situation swiftly becomes an emotional tug of war for John that involves him blowing off his job (under ridiculous pretenses) and occasionally Lori so he can spend time with his boozy, potheaded, hooker-frequenting best bud bear. As Lori becomes increasingly irritated at how badly John is blowing things, the writing may soon be on the wall for their relationship, but meanwhile Ted finds himself in the sights of a creepy pair of stalkers who seek to obtain the talking toy by any means necessary...

WARNING: The remainder of this review contains minor spoilers, so if you don't want to have anything ruined by finding out about it beforehand, it is advisable to stop reading now.

TED is the debut movie effort as a director for FAMILY GUY creator Seth McFarlane, who also shares the scripting credit here, and while the film is certainly not without laughs, it's disappointing to see that McFarlane has stayed so firmly within the comfort zone of the kind of material we've seen beaten to death on FAMILY GUY, with the sole real difference being that he's now operating without the constraints put on his frat boy humor by the FCC. (Thankfully, the film does not rely on the frequently-repeated and increasingly unfunny full-length musical numbers and non-sequitor "gags" that forced me away from FAMILY GUY few years back.) Yes, TED is funny and has more heartfelt sentiment than one would likely expect, but much like AMERICAN DAD and THE CLEVELAND SHOW, it's a case of Seth McFarlane once again proving that he's pretty much a one-trick pony, which is damned shame since the guy does possess comedic talent when he's not lazily relying on his own tropes. (The film itself even comments on Ted's vocal resemblance to FAMILY GUY's Peter Griffin, which makes sense because both are voiced by Seth McFarlane, only Ted rocks a pronounced "r"-dropping Boston accent.) Then again, his hewing so close to what he's done a million times before may be part of the game plan, because I'm convinced that the only audience that will really take to TED in real earnest is the one that tunes in every week to Fox to watch three cookie cutter McFarlane animated shows that are only slightly differentiated by their voice casts and character designs/setups.

And speaking of repetition of McFarlane's tropes, the one that most sorely rankles me in on display here with flags proudly unfurled, and that is his constant masturbation over his adoration of the 1980's, specifically of its utterly manufactured and largely soulless pop culture. Yes, Seth, we know you enshrine that decade, but must you continue to inflict that worship/necrophilia upon those of us who were there to experience it as teenagers/adults and who can view it minus rose-colored glasses for the incredibly empty period that it was? It's been tiresome in McFarlane's TV work for ages and I certainly would rather not pay the exorbitant NYC movie theater prices to be fed more of a flavor that I already cannot stomach.

There's also the aforementioned subplot about the pair of stalkers who want to obtain Ted, an utterly unnecessary narrative element that brings the film to a dead halt whenever it rears its head, and even causes the last reel to needlessly devolve into a chase sequence. I suppose the creative thinking behind this was to provide some kind of conflict that would lead to the tragic events of the final act, but I say that rather than give us a rote chase about which we don't necessarily care anyway, why not have Ted get torn in half by an encounter with a dog who'd been eyeing him as a possible chew-toy in the park from an earlier point in the film? The stalkers are introduced into the narrative during a park scene and they offer nothing other than a setup for the chase-and-rescue-attempt sequence that we see coming a mile away, so why not instead have something like the dog scenario I just postulated? It would have been much more tragic to see Ted rent asunder by a Rottweiler, a savage attack that would have borne none of the goofiness of the image of a hicked-out Giovanni Ribisi climbing up a lighting tower in pursuit of the fleeing Ted after hours in Fenway Park, and one that would have added deep pathos to the pain and futility of John and Lori's desperate attempt to save Ted with their crude sewing skills. (Don't worry, Ted survives after Lori makes a wish that magically restores him.)

But with that said, the film does have many laugh-out-loud moments, some of which are genuinely brilliant, specifically:
  • Patrick Stewart's pitch-perfect storybook-style narration that exudes just the right tone of childlike whimsy...until he shatters the mood with observations about how the only thing more powerful than a young boy's wish is an Apache helicopter "because they have missiles and machine guns, they're total death machines," and a bit during the ending narration that makes brutal and direct commentary on SUPERMAN RETURNS and Brandon Routh to such a degree that it made me laugh until I was reduced to a state of barking coughing. That part got my vote for the funniest thing in the entire film...
  • Or rather it would have if not for the utterly brilliant party sequence at Ted's apartment, a bit that makes the film's one genuinely hilarious use of an '80's reference. John and Ted are both established early in the film as loving FLASH GORDON, both for its being a so-bad-it's-good movie and for teaching them about good and evil and right and wrong at an impressionable age, so while out with Lori at her boss's lavish party during what was supposed to be his time of building a life just for him and his girl, John receives a call from Ted, who's in the middle of throwing a raucous party at which Sam J. Jones himself, the star of FLASH GORDON and their idol, is in attendance. John ditches Lori at her douchebag boss's party with the intention of meeting Jones and returning before she notices he's gone, but upon meeting his fifty-eight-year-old hero — and it really is Sam J. Jones, who's very gamely in on the joke — and being invited by him to do shots of tequila, things get interesting, to say the very least, and the results are a fucking riot to behold.
"Death to Ming!!!": Ted and John share shots with their idol, Sam J. Jones.

I have hated the 1980 FLASH GORDON movie since it came out because I grew up on the character and his adventures and felt that that movie was an intentionally campy piece of shit, but Jones's willing and hilarious participation in TED has gone a long way toward redeeming FLASH GORDON in my eyes, so maybe after thirty-two years it's time to give FLASH GORDON a second chance and accept it for the goofy treasure that many feel it to be. If I come away from TED with nothing else, I will at least remember it for working that minor miracle.

So the bottom line from me as far as TED is concerned is this: It is definitely funny and worth a viewing, but its script is inconsistent and very much a rehash of territory previously well-trod by McFarlane, so as such I do not think it warrants paying full price to see it at the theater. (Here in NYC, it averages around fourteen bucks for adult admission, and the matinee that I saw today came to ten bucks thanks to it being an early show and due to points wracked up with my Regal Cinemas club card, which also landed me a free movie ticket for my next visit to the Court Street Stadium 12.) I do, however, very much recommend TED once it hits cable. "FLASH JUMP!!!"

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