Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bad Toy Story: TED

The Ted in Ted is a teddy bear. His owner Johnny, a friendless eight-year-old boy, makes a Christmas wish upon a shooting star and, just like that, the bear comes alive. He’s a walking, talking, little fuzzball who becomes fast friends with little Johnny. Being a sentient teddy bear is sufficiently unusual that Ted becomes a news sensation and then a minor celebrity. All the while, his best friend Johnny is by his side. A G-rated version of this story would stop there, but this movie goes all the way to R. Now, over two decades later, Ted’s fame has fizzled out and he and Johnny (Mark Wahlberg) hold down minimum wage jobs, smoke weed, and watch cheesy movies (especially the 80’s Flash Gordon) all day every day. Johnny’s girlfriend of four years (Mila Kunis) thinks that it’s time the bear moves out, but Johnny’s not so sure he could live without him. And with that, we’ve arrived at what is hopefully the apex of man-child comedy. The living teddy bear is perhaps the ultimate self-reflexive metaphor for a character who really needs to get his act together and grow up already.

The movie is written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of a handful of grating animated sitcoms, the most successful of which is Family Guy, a show that builds its humor out of non sequiturs, bad taste, and repetitiveness. (Two writers for that show, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, are credited with an assist on the movie’s screenplay). With Ted, MacFarlane has a great concept, lots of jokes, but not much of a movie. I suppose it would help if you found the humor funny. There are exactly three categories the jokes can be sorted into: 1. The teddy bear does or says something, usually crude, that is incongruous with his innocent exterior; 2. The teddy bear does something one wouldn’t expect a teddy bear to do, like wear a suit, drive a car, or do drugs; 3. The teddy bear, or one of his human costars, makes a pop culture reference or reacts to a cameo. The first two kinds of jokes are funny for a while, but soon lose their novelty. The third kind is mildly amusing the first few times, especially the cameos, and then starts to seem like a crutch.

But the main problem with Ted isn’t that it’s bad, exactly. It’s not just that the jokes are arranged in a pattern that’s easy to figure out – something happens or something is said; bear swears, says pop culture reference, or probably both – and are easily categorized. It’s not even that I happened to find the jokes unfunny. The main problem is that the movie is so hopelessly under-plotted and lazily made. The central conflict of the movie, that the man-child needs to grow up, is something that has been done before and better in countless other comedies, and is set up almost immediately here. The way it develops is painfully familiar, without dramatic interest of any kind as it hits each and every story beat you’d expect with little cleverness or invention. From then on out all the movie has to offer is aimless flailing about until it arrives, seemingly by accident, at a climax that resolves the A-plot by roping in a subplot (involving poor Giovanni Ribisi as Ted’s stalker fan) that was awkwardly introduced and promptly forgotten so that its sudden return is actually a bit of a surprise. And then, to top it all off, MacFarlane throws in awkward sentiment of the kind he starts the film rejecting, as if he could think of no more creative way to finish things off.

At first, I though I might end up complimenting MacFarlane on his actual filmmaking in his live-action debut. I thought he might turn out to be a competent comedy director if he could write (or find) a better screenplay. But that was before he – and, to be fair, his editor – makes a total jumbled mess out of a simple conversation between three people in one cubicle. Each character is held in separate medium shots, which are assembled in such a confusing manner, cutting on each line of dialogue, that I lost all geographical bearings in what is an awfully small space. (Why not use one shot instead of three? Who knows?)  Still, MacFarlane has smartly cast the film, not just Kunis and Wahlberg, who are admirably playing the material like they don’t know it’s supposed to be funny, but small parts for Joel McHale, Patrick Warburton, and other amusing people. Also Patrick Stewart narrates for some reason.

The funniest thing about the movie is that Ted himself is a creative idea convincingly brought to life. MacFarlane voices him in a funny, likable way so that even his most outrageous comments and behavior seem palatable. The animation of the bear is cute, too. There’s no denying that the comedic and creative high-point of the film is a smashing brawl between Wahlberg and this teddy bear as they punch and kick at each other, leaving a trail of destruction all around a small hotel room. That’s a pretty good scene. But Ted is certainly not in a good movie. There’s not enough creativity to match the central conceit. Instead, MacFarlane seems to think throwing enough stereotypes (crudely sketched moments with at least one to offend each race, creed, gender, and orientation in the audience) at the screen, or giving the cute bear enough incongruous R-rated material to perform, will compensate for not having much of a story to tell or any good idea of how to film it. It seems desperate for laughs, or worse, convinced that it’s lazy approach will get them anyways.

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