At one point in Seth MacFarlane’s live-action comedy Ted, Norah Jones turns up, playing herself. The film gets a few solid laughs by suggesting that the pop singer and the title character, a sentient teddy bear, had a torrid sexual affair. But then a pair of jokes about Jones’ half-Indian racial heritage are thrown in that seem mean-spirited at best; if Jones herself were not in on the joke it would be downright racist. That’s Ted in a nutshell: every joke aims to offend and not all of them hit, but a decent amount of solid laughs are delivered.
As explained via a prologue narrated by the incomparable Patrick Stewart, eight-year-old John Barrett (played as an adult by Mark Wahlberg) wishes for his stuffed bear Teddy to come alive, so that he could have a best friend. Magically, that is exactly what happens … but it’s impossible to keep such a thing secret. Teddy (voiced by MacFarlane, the creator and voice behind Family Guy) becomes a minor celebrity, one who ages at the same rate as John does. That celebrity leads into a burnout’s adulthood, with the attitude that he can do whatever he wants, say whatever he wants, and smoke as much marijuana as he wants.
Still, he and John remain best friends, which leads in an unusual direction: this is really just a film about how John’s raunchy buddy is ruining his relationship with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). The fantasy element is just a smokescreen, a way for MacFarlane to fit in as many offensive jokes as possible while still keeping the buddy character likeable. In fact Ted is probably the flattest character in the film, because with no solid explanation of why he’s such a bigoted jerk, it sometimes seems like MacFarlane just stepped into the recording booth and ad-libbed the most offensive thing he could think of.
Viewers who believe the South Park joke about Family Guy – that it’s just a collection of random references which may or may not be written by manatees – may find Ted frustrating at times. A significant number of the jokes could go into just about any movie and be equally funny, and there are a number of celebrities name-dropped for seemingly no reason (Tom Skerritt?). Most egregious of all is a shot-for-shot parody of a famous scene in Airplane! which looks for all the world like a live-action version of one of Family Guy‘s infamous cutaway gags.
However, Wahlberg and Kunis are fully committed and they have good chemistry. Their conversations feel real and they ground the movie, neutering the more offensive jokes. Both John and Ted seem like a parody of a certain type of Bostonian – call it a BAAAH-stonian – but as this reviewer is not from Boston it’s hard to judge how well they do it. The Lori character is fleshed out much better, since so many movies in this style have “the girlfriend” be a dour wet blanket.
MacFarlane keeps the movie from getting bogged down, and he stages a fight scene between John and Ted that is a legitimate marvel of direction (it’s as well-done as the hotel-room fight in Haywire, no joke). However he still has a bit to learn about tone, for if he was aiming at the same combination of sweetness and raunch that made There’s Something About Mary a hit, he didn’t quite get there.