We’ve lived so long in the Age of Apatow that it’s hard to recall a time when the recipe for comic cinema didn’t call for equal parts raunch and sweetness. The formula that once seemed almost revolutionary has become the mainstream at this point and, as I watched Hollywood’s latest mashup of the naughty and the nice, I came to the conclusion that it’s getting a little old.
Seth MacFarlane, creator of Fox’s long-running “Family Guy,” is a brilliant lunatic whose feature debut could have been a game changer. He’s one of the few writer-directors working today whom I can imagine taking movie comedy in a new direction. Apparently, we’ll have to wait on that. Because, with Ted, MacFarlane does not change the game. He plays it. By the rules.
And, as we know, the current “rules” require outrageousness tempered by sentiment. Outrageousness here takes the fluffy form of a foul-mouthed teddy bear with a weakness for weed. Mark Wahlberg stars as John Bennett, the film’s mandatory arrested adolescent. The core joke is that John was given the toy as a Christmas present when he was 8. A lonely Boston boy, he wished on a star for his new best friend to come to life, and, 27 years later, the two are still inseparable. All that’s really changed is that the bear has turned into a party animal.
Comedies about an arrested adolescent tend to include another stock character: the girlfriend who wishes he’d just grow up. Mila Kunis fills these familiar pumps in the role of PR exec Lori Collins. She’s been a paragon of patience, putting up with her roommates’ beer drinking and bong smoking for four years, but she reaches the end of her rope the night she and John return home from a fancy dinner to find Ted entertaining an apartment full of prostitutes. The plushie is forced to pack his bags.
Can John juggle the demands of his friendship with Ted and his relationship with Lori? The balance of the movie (written by MacFarlane with “Family Guy” scribes Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) is devoted to this question. But, as in many comedies these days, the story is of less concern than the gags, bits and bizarro non sequiturs interspersed with the plot points.
MacFarlane’s big-screen debut has deliriously demented touches — just not enough of them. High points include John and Ted’s shared obsession with Flash Gordon, a 1980 slice of sci-fi fromage; a brutal motel-room brawl between the two; and an appearance by Norah Jones, who gamely jokes about her sexual history with the stuffed stud. Strangely, the fact that one of the movie’s principal characters is a talking bear (voiced by MacFarlane) never comes off as particularly surreal.
The film’s outrageousness is front-loaded. Sentiment is the name of the game for much of the second half, as John, Ted and Lori have predictable epiphanies right on schedule, and loose ends are tied up as neatly as the bow on a package from FAO Schwarz. These developments strand Ted in a sort of movie no-man’s-land. It’s too crude for the kids but nowhere near subversive enough to set itself apart from other R-rated comedies in the same tradition. The irony is that, at least for the time being, if you want to see Seth MacFarlane at the top of his game, you’ll have to turn on a TV.