Sunday, July 1, 2012

There's Just Something About Ted

Movie Review: Ted

Director:  Todd MacFarlane

Reviewed: 30 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Sometimes you go see a movie on a lark because friends suggest it on a Friday in the summer evening, and there are still a row of tickets available to a ten p.m. show on opening night.  It may not have been a film that you were clamoring to see (you could rank three other films currently in theaters ahead of it), but the thrill of seeing an opening night film, in a packed house, with the hope that it will be funny and make the crowd roar are all present.

One of my favorite movie-watching moments ever was seeing There's Something About Mary on the Friday it opened in the summer of 1998 with a packed house, sitting in the third row with friends Ed, Mike, Mark, and Matt, watching the audience fall out of their seats in laughter.  I actually saw that for the first and only time in a theater.  For that film, I had heard little beforehand and thus was unprepared for the raunchy hilarity.  I remember missing up to thirty seconds of dialogue at a time because the crowd was still exploding and recovering with laughter from previous scenes.  A masterpiece and a thrilling movie-watching experience.

Now it is the summer of 2012.  As I watched Ted last Friday night, I realized that this environment was the best possible one to see this film.  Some movies are just meant to be seen on opening weekend or opening night if possible.  Does that affect my rating and review of the film?  Ultimately, no.  A clunky movie is a clunky movie, crowd or no crowd.  However, I found Ted both enjoyable and hilarious as I watched its best moments reverberate through a crowd, though admittedly, no one fell out of a seat with laughter.  Admittedly, that's a pretty high bar to set for a comedy.  

My admiration for Ted begins with the narration of a young boy wishing his Christmas gift teddy bear would become alive, his real best friend, and the ramifications of that wish coming true.  A stentorian Patrick Stewart narrates as John Bennet meets Ted, his best friend forever and thunder buddy, John's parents freak out rather wonderfully in the kitchen at the sight of a walking and talking stuffed animal, and the opening pre-title sequence culminates in Ted becoming a celebrity and appearing Forrest Gump-like on Johnny Carson's show before, as Stewart tells us, pretty much everyone got used to him and stopped making it such a big deal.  Roll titles with hilarious photographs in place of plot.

A 35-year old rental car employee John Bennet (Mark Wahlberg) and his PR executive girlfriend Lori Collins (Mila Kunis) begin the film struggling to find balance within their lives while living with Ted.  Ted drinks, smokes up, hires prostitutes, and pretty much serves as mouthpiece for anything graphically sexual, virulently racist, or homophobic, and a his mouth spews a fountain of eighties and nineties references; his influence over John leads to conflict as John misses work, is late for work, still shares a bed and hilarious chanting ritual whenever thunder sounds.  As voiced by MacFarlane himself, what Ted lacks in facial expression he more than compensates for in verbal acuity and acidity.  Most of the joy of the first portion of this film consists of the incongruity of the visual of a kid's teddy bear spouting racist, homophobic, and sexist comments in a matter-of-fact manner.  Very little is taboo, and part of the fun is trying to guess what Ted is going to say next.

So, in order to appease Lori, Ted moves out, gets a job at a local grocery store where his inappropriate behavior keeps getting rewarded, and struggles living without John.  They both stay in touch, with Ted calling John to come over to his place to get hight instead of working his job, with a double-date that goes awry featuring Ted's new girlfriend, as well as an eventual chaotic party at Ted's new pad.  Said party  forces John to choose between a work-related shindig with Lori's predatory and slimy boss Rex (Joel McHale) or Ted's wild bash featuring an icon from both of their childhoods.  The party sequence seems to be the centerpiece of the film, with Ted eviscerating Hootie and the Blowfish (as well as most of 90's pop rock) with supporting fights, cocaine, and hilarious one-liners.  John's choice to attend the party and the consequences of that act drive the rest of the film, as does a bizarre subplot involving a deranged stalker named Donny (a creepily effective Giovanni Ribisi) who wants to buy Ted for his deranged son.

Wahlberg is winning in this film, a highlight being his offering a litany of white-trash names for Ted's girlfriend that brought the house down.  Wahlberg rattles off over 25 names in one take before adding the second layer to the joke and repeating.  Although I think Wahlberg's best role ever is that other Boston film The DeParted, his performance is great here, as he does not get swallowed up by  a visual effect.  MacFarlane's Ted fires up shot after shot, many of them layups, but there are occasional three-pointers of hilarity, and the consistent effort pays off with most shots going in (Ed McMahon thought Ted was Alf; a Teddy Ruxpin crack results in a three minute Kill-Bill style thrashing of an apartment with Ted punching John in the face, repeatedly; a 9-11 reference still catches the breath for its audacity or rarity).  Ribisi brings the right level of creep to his role, and both Lori and John's work friends seem poised for more minutes of screen time but never get it.  The film races to its inevitable conclusion with a Norah Jones concert as well as a chase scene ending up on the tower above the Green Monster at Fenway (Shouldn't that park be better guarded than it is, considering its role in this film and The Town?).  A final joke at the end goes over extremely well and is offensive.

There is a trend in recent comedy films to evoke the 80's or early 90's through nostalgic songs, pop culture references, and in particular, actual stars of that time period.  I Love You, Man did this with both Rush and Lou Ferrigno, Bridesmaids featured Wilson Phillips love via an end of the movie sing-along, and now Ted enters the comedy canon with its extended love fest involving Flash Gordon.  I don't know if this has always been a feature of comedy (There's Something About Mary did feature a scratchy Chris Elliot, a thick Brett Fav-Ra, and the musical stylings of Jonathan Richman), but when John recalls a memory of first meeting Lori, and the film flashes back to him as the white-uniformed lead from Airplane! in the dance spoof scene of Saturday Night Fever, the moment works on level after hilarious level.  I enjoyed laughing at the reference within a reference, but I realize that not everyone, particularly those younger than me, will get that reference.  And it is funny even without understanding the reference of Mark Wahlberg as Ted Striker as Tony Manero.  I like being able to get most of the references, though I'll admit to being lost with the Flash Gordon worship.

And therein lies the strengths of this film. A willingness to throw joke after joke up with many of them sticking.  An affinity for transgressive humor though not as bodily-focused as a Farrelly Brothers film.  A skillful glee in referencing 80's and 90's culture (at one point, Ted grabs his torn arm from behind a doorway ala Indiana Jones, with just a line of John Williams' score).  An assembly of really good actors who look like they're having fun.  An off-the-wall, anarchic sense of play and that nearly anything goes.  A fully realized commitment to having Ted be a character, not a visual effect.  Impressively, Ted focuses on the character's statements more than his actions.

Three stars is a strong rating.  I had fun watching this movie, and I would watch it again.  I think some of the surprise and shock will dissipate and some of the weaknesses of the story might become more glaring.  But there were enough shining moments for me to recommend this film.  And the few cameos, another staple of the comedy, are handled well.

I don't know if you can see Ted in the third row of the Sundance Theater in Houston with Vini, Denise, Kyrlyn, Natalie, and Lanny, but I recommend that too.  Ted is a movie best shared with a crowd and with friends.  And, I suspect, a film that warrants a sequel.

1 comment:

  1. Overall, I agree with you. It was wonderful to be in a theater full of laughing people, and I giggled quite a bit. I think my biggest complaints are the plot scenes. I felt disengaged during any of the more serious scenes (I recall yawning at the drawn out relationship-y conversations at the end). I think the plot took itself too seriously for the movie. I wanted more of a jovial, loose plot like that of Hangover 1 because then I would be able to turn my brain off and just enjoy the jokes. Or, if this movie insists on me taking a plot seriously, I would need more charm and chemistry, like Bridesmaids. Although there were some great jokes and laughs in the kidnapping-related scenes and characters, that whole sequence felt tacked-on, as though the writers just wanted a twist, which also led me to be bored during the chase scene. It was fun, and I would do it all over again, but, to me, it's not on par with the great comedies of the past few years.