Seth MacFarlane's Ted joins the ranks of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Observe and Report among razor-sharp cultural satires cleverly disguised as dumb comedies. While it doesn't quite reach the brilliance of the former, it is an altogether warmer, sweeter, and more empathetic film that the latter pitch-black comedy. It would be tempting to write the film off as pure popcorn exercise in vulgarity, and on that account it is an unquestionable success. But beneath the one-joke premise and the R-rated humor lays a piercing examination of a culture unable to let go of the entertainment they grew up on. To paraphrase a very wise friend of mine*, our generation defines itself not by the historical events of our lifetime but rather by the entertainment we consumed as we grew up. Writer/director Seth MacFarlane, along with co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, would surely agree with that statement. But they take it a step further. For those in our generation who refuse to truly grow up, the entertainment of our past is a crutch for furthering the cause of arrested development. That MacFarlane would craft a film so critical of both his core demographic for indulging in one of the key components of his own joke box is an act of genuine bravery.
The film's plot is pretty thin, as you can pretty much spell it out via the above poster. John Bennett''s childhood stuffed teddy bear came to life while he was a child and they have been best friends ever since. But now John (Mark Wahlberg) is 35 years old, and his professional life is at a standstill while his long-term relationship with Lori Collins (Mila Kunis) is in jeopardy because John isn't quite a grown-up yet. After an altercation, Lori gives an ultimatum -- she will leave unless John finally kicks out his best pal and starts behaving like an adult. Ted (the voice of Seth MacFarlane) does his best to assimilate to living on his own and existing in the real world even while John's attempts at stepping up are threatened by the lure of Ted's immature antics. That's all you need so that's all you get. The film surely earns its R-rating by virtue of its bawdy humor, but it is not a cruel or mean-spirited film. I could have done with a few less 'gay jokes,' but I appreciated that when a supporting character comes out of the closet, the only joke is which famous actor plays his new boyfriend (I.E. -- once he comes out no one cares that he's gay). Over the course of the film, nearly every character is accorded at least a token amount of respect.
Kunis's Lori is both funny and taken seriously as a character with her own wants and needs. Refreshingly, the film clearly takes her side as she wrestles with how to deal with Ted's interference and she is never chastised for occasional 'tough love.' The women in this film are all full-blown human beings, where even John's attractive coworker exists not as a temptation/third-act misunderstanding but merely to offer John some sensible advice and support. There is a famous singer who cameos in act three, and when Ted hears her belt a tune and remarks "Oh man, I've got to f** her again...", it comes off as almost endearing, as if he can't believe he was lucky enough to sleep with her the first time. For all the frat boy humor and periodic sexual vulgarity on display, the picture is clearly respectful of its female characters and subtly makes a point that a generation full of post-adolescent boys has allowed professional women to rise in the ranks that much easier. Most of the men are obsessed with the things of their youth, be it the movies and video-games that John and Ted still obsess over or the various memorabilia that Lori's boss Rex (Joel McHale) collects. Rex could have been a full-blown villain, as he relentlessly pursues her in the workplace to the point of clear-cut sexual harassment. But MacFarlane makes Rex more needy and/or entitled than predatory and the film avoids a number of opportunities for Rex to become cartoonishly evil and instead allows him a certain defeated dignity.
As for the star duo, Mark Wahlberg again proves how apt he is at comedy, arguably more-so than as a straight dramatic actor. His John is not terribly bright, but his dim-bulb character is a genuinely decent guy and his chemistry with Mila Kunis makes it clear why they got together in the first place and why she puts up with his shortcomings. I wish Ted's voice sounded a little less like Peter Griffin, but it is a wholly original character and one that occasionally plays the fly in the ointment without becoming an enemy or an obstacle. Ted does funny things and engages in some bad behavior, but he is never antagonistic and we never feel that he is the out-and-out cause of John's conflicts. There are a number of cameos, including an extended one that others have revealed but I won't, and every one of them is both relevant to the story and allowed to be funny in their own way. The key to the film's success as a comedy is that none of the humor is rooted in cruelty or malice. Seth MacFarlane may hold some of these people in judgment, but he likes and roots for most of them and the film gives us adequate reason to like them too.
At its core, Ted is a picture about an overgrown child who won't step up to the plate and be an adult, and the walking/talking teddy bear who serves as an enabler. But the picture is more than just a generic fable about letting go of childhood as it takes specific and pinpoint aim at a culture that defies the entertainment it grew up with and still insists on bathing in the warm waters of generational nostalgia. Much of the humor comes from 1980s and 1990s pop-culture references, but MacFarlane is only too aware of today's generation of 20-40 year olds, especially men, fetishize their childhood playthings. Considering how much of Family Guy's popularity stems from various off-the-cuff references to pop culture of decades past, MacFarlane is openly criticizing the very thing that made him a millionaire. It is a bold and almost courageous piece of social commentary, in a 'only Nixon can go to China' fashion. More than just a vulgar comedy about a talking teddy bear, more than just a generic arrested development story, Ted specifically targets a specific generation for holding on to their pop-culture memories like a security blanket.
Seth MacFarlane's Ted is unquestionably hilarious and unexpectedly empathetic even towards its targets of condemnation, ever optimistic and acknowledging a happy medium between cherishing the past but acknowledging the present. In its razor-sharp examination of a culture still clinging to their 8-bit glory days, it may be a truly brilliant work of social commentary. At the very least, it is the year's funniest comedy and one of the best pictures of 2012. It is more than a funny movie, it is a great film. Call it the year's happiest surprise, but Seth MacFarlane's Ted is a genuine work of art.
*Michael Marvin's full quote - "Observation: My grandparents defined their generation by its hardships: they struggled through The Great Depression and survived World War II. My parents defined their generation through social politics: the Civil Rights Movement and Watergate. My peers define my generation through the media we consume: Nintendo and Ninja Turtles."