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There are belly laughs in Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” but afterwards I felt depressed and unclean.
“Ted” is a movie about a miracle that gets usurped by the worst 1980s pop-culture crap. It’s about putting away childish things when the main character doesn’t. The two central characters, John Bennett and Lori Collins (Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis), are both nice, good-looking people but most everyone around them is a douchebag, a sap, creepy, or depressingly stupid. A nighttime chase scene winds up at Fenway Park and I thought, “Can’t we have one movie set in Boston that doesn’t wind up at Fenway Park?” Retahded.
But it’s mostly the pop-culture crap, and the waste it signifies, that got me down.
The movie opens in a nice middle-class neighborhood. It’s Christmastime. Snow is falling gently on the ground, the kids are building snowmen, and it’s that time of year, we’re informed by the narrator (Patrick Stewart), when all the little children ... beat up on the Jewish kids. Little John Bennett is the nice kid in the neighborhood who leaves his house as it’s happening, as four gentiles are beating up on a curly-haired Jewish kid, and he asks, innocently, if anyone wants to play. Everyone pauses in the beating to tell him to get lost—including the Jewish kid. “Yeah, Bennett,” he says, “Get lost!” That’s the first time I belly laughed.
For Christmas John gets a teddy bear, and that night he wishes it could talk to him for real, that it could be his friend for real. A shooting star goes by. Next morning, this miracle has happened.
Initially we wonder if it’s going to be a “Mr. Ed” thing, where nobody will see Ted walking and talking but John. Nope. His parents see and freak. Next thing we know, Ted is on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He’s a hit. He’s a celebrity. Which is when Patrick Stewart informs us of the first rule of celebrity: “Eventually nobody gives a shit.” And that happens to Ted.
We cut to 2012 and John, now 35, and Ted are hanging out on the couch, getting high, eating Sugar Pops cereal and watching Sam Jones in the 1980 camp classic “Flash Gordon.” Ted, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, talks about how ugly Boston girls are. He does a bit mocking the Boston girl mid-orgasm: “Hahdah, hahdah.” The two talk about how “Flash Gordon” is the all-American movie: a football quarterback goes into outer space to save the world. What could be better? They both agree Patriots QB Tom Brady could totally do that. Then John realizes it’s 9:30 and he’s already late for work at Liberty Rent-a-Car, where he’s hoping to hang on long enough to make a $37K a year job. Since he’s too high, Ted drives him there.
Can I pause for a moment? I just hate this kind of thing. I hate it when a movie gives us a transformative event but doesn’t recognize it as such. The filmmakers are so intent on their own metaphor, or have so little faith in humanity, that they assume we’ll see the transformative event as akin to, I don’t know, the iPad, or “Home Alone,” and, after a flurry of activity, we’ll forget about it.
So in “District 9,” the transformative event is aliens landing on Earth, the metaphor is “aliens as persecuted minority,” and that’s what they become, and that’s all they become. So in “Ted,” an inanimate object becomes a living, sentient being through prayer. In the real world, entire religions would be built around him. Thousands would descend upon John, demanding that he pray for them, too. The law would get involved (does Ted have civil rights?), as would science (exactly how is he alive?), and the military (can John animate other inanimate objects—like weapons?). But writer-director Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) would rather wallow in gags about ’80s pop culture. Ted, a true Christmas miracle, simply becomes a fuzzier version of Gary Coleman: a cute star in the 1980s who struggles to find his way in the 2000s.
MacFarlane steeps us in ’80s nostalgia. During John’s first date with Lori, four years earlier, they watch “Octopussy” together. When he recalls the party where they met on the dance floor, it’s an almost frame-by-frame remake of the “Saturday Night Fever” parody sequence in “Airplane.” “Flash Gordon” keeps getting referenced, and Sam Jones, its star, eventually shows up, and they all party and do coke together, which causes Lori to break up with John, who tries to win her back by crashing Norah Jones’ concert and singing “All Time High,” the theme from “Octopussy,” to Lori in the audience.
There are also references to Sinead O’Connor, Tom Skerrit, “Top Gun,” “T.J. Hooker,” and “Aliens,” while the villain, Donny (an incredibly creepy Giovanni Ribisi), who covets Ted, wants to buy him, and then kidnaps him, dances to Tiffany singing her mall-hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
We see the conflict between Lori and Ted coming a mile off, and, to MacFarlane’s credit, he doesn’t draw it out. Lori wants Ted out, John is straightforward with him, Ted gets his own place and a job as a cashier at a supermarket, where he bangs the cute cashier, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth, who has an early Denise Richards thing going) on top of the produce in the back. For which he gets promoted.
There are funny bits. Ted tells off the grocery store manager, who admits he’s not used to being talked to that way. “That’s because everyone’s mouth is usually full of your wife’s box,” Ted replies.
There are sweet bits. Lori says, “I know I’m not a talking teddy bear but at least you didn’t have to make a wish to get me.” John replies, “How do you know?”
Wahlberg is, again, quite good as another sweet, laid-back dude who can throw a punch when he needs to. And the look of pure joy on his face when he first sees Sam Jones is adorable. But he’s playing a guy who eats Sugar Pops and gets high all the time and he still looks like Mark Wahlberg? Please. Plus I wouldn’t mind seeing him show the fire he showed in “The Departed” again. At least once. In a leading role.
Ultimately “Ted” is a celebration of stupid people liking stupid shit. One assumes that MacFarlane, as funny as he is, is one of these people. He has the chance to say something about miracles, or the emptiness of nostalgia, but we don’t even get the “putting away childish things” lesson. During a chase, Ted gets torn, and dies, but he’s brought back to life by Lori, who makes her own wish on a shooting star. Apparently this is the only wish God grants: Bringing Ted to life. So he can make pussy jokes. Plus jokes about Mexicans and the Chinese, who are, like, totally hilarious. The way they talk.
If it’s any consolation, I don’t like “Family Guy,” either.
July 29, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard