Friday, June 29, 2012

Ted: Not cuddly enough

Ted (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for crude and sexual content, pervasive profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang

This is a one-note Saturday Night Live sketch stretched way beyond its limits.

John (Mark Wahlberg) should be at work; he also should be paying
more attention to his long-suffering girlfriend. But John seems quite
content to get stoned with his stuffed companion, Ted: a pattern
that this film beats far beyond the point of endurance.
Granted, the technology employed to animate this short, stuffed teddy bear is amazing. I particularly admire the attention to little details, such as the way his fur bristles during moments of stress, or the little shadow that falls on the ground — at the proper angle to the sun — as he walks along a park pathway.

But Ted wastes far too much time hammering the same tired joke: potty-mouthed teddy bear who likes to get stoned, and loves to dally with disreputable ladies. The novelty of that gag wears thin almost immediately, and yet this film’s script — credited to Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild and director Seth MacFarlane — keeps ringing that same bell.

Look how funny this is, MacFarlane repeatedly insists. A teddy bear who cusses like a dockworker!

Yeah, yeah, yeah ... we get it, we get it. Now get on with something else.

Alas, “something else” is a long time coming.

Ted begins with a lengthy flashback, narrated gravely — and quite drolly — by Patrick Stewart, which centers on John Bennett, a lonely little boy with no friends. After receiving a cuddly stuffed teddy bear on Christmas Day, John makes A Big Wish. The following morning, to his delight, Ted has come to life.

Ted becomes an overnight celebrity: darling of news reports, honored guest on Johnny Carson’s late-night talk show (nice bit of revisionist clip-editing, there). Initially a sweet, angelic companion just right for a little boy, Ted “matures” into a slacker dope fiend as John grows older (now played by Mark Wahlberg).

The point, a bit long in coming, is that Ted’s presence has kept John in an arrested adolescent state: not good for a 35-year-old guy.

Despite this, John has won the heart of Lori Collins (Mila Kunis), a professional woman with a real job. John, in contrast, has a dead-end position at a car-rental agency, where — at the slightest provocation — he’ll blow off work to sneak home and get stoned with Ted.

But as John and Lori celebrate their four-year anniversary, her patience has worn thin; Ted’s antics, in turn, have become wholly intolerable. (Let’s just say that the incident with the four hookers strays into disgusting territory that isn’t funny in Judd Apatow flicks, and still isn’t funny here.) Although Lori is kind enough not to put an ultimatum into actual words, John gets the message: It’s either Ted or her.

But this dance, too, plays out far too many times; it feels as thought the story simply jogs in place.

Until the third act, at which point the narrative flickers into life with the introduction of some actual dramatic tension and a few surprise cameos. Norah Jones gets some quality screen time — referencing a long-ago sordid dalliance with Ted — but the real hoot comes with the appearance of Sam Jones, also playing himself.

This is significant because John and Ted have long regarded 1980’s Flash Gordon as the ne plus ultra of geek fantasy films, and the chance to meet Flash in the flesh — as it were — is too good to be true. Jones, for his part, has a lot of fun lampooning the image from his long-ago sci-fi bomb.

Then things really kick into gear, thanks to a sinister turn by Giovanni Ribisi, as Donny, a stalker blend of Ed Gein and Hannibal Lecter, who, ever since boyhood, has wanted Ted for his very own. Donny and his equally creepy adolescent son, Robert (Aedin Mincks), have unhealthy designs on Ted, and their desires are not to be denied.

Ribisi probably is getting tired of his association with similarly disturbing roles, but golly, it’s hard not to be transfixed; he makes such a persuasive psychopath. Ribisi and Mincks make a father-son partnership in derangement that might give Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter pause.

Wahlberg, game for just about anything, pours heart and soul into his Boston-based shlub. His slow takes and smoldering burns are amusing, and he almost — not quite — manages to sound credible when insisting that this time, really, his love for Lori is strong enough to prompt a change in behavior.

Unfortunately, Wahlberg too frequently acts up a storm in a vacuum, trying to breathe life into contrived, tired set-ups that aren’t amusing the first time, let alone the fifth.

MacFarlane voices Ted, turning the stuffed bear into a profane stand-up mouthpiece, much like the politically incorrect characters on his animated TV shows, Family Guy and American Dad! To be sure, Ted is an equal-opportunity offender; he spares no race, culture, religious denomination or gender. That’s not to say he gets a pass for some of his nastier efforts at humor; as with much of this film, Ted’s commentary tries much too hard with far too little.

Kunis continues to underwhelm, trading on little beyond her natural cuteness and signature dark eye shadow. She makes Lori a worthy object of desire, but the demands placed on her character arc are beyond Kunis’ modest acting talents.

Joel McHale is appropriately smarmy as Rex, Lori’s boss, who has wanted to bed her for years. Patrick Warburton has a modestly amusing turn as Guy, one of John’s co-workers, who apparently can’t get a handle on his sexuality ... until committing with another unexpected guest star.

Stewart has fun, as he imitates the manner of a classic fairy tale narrator, while occasionally “breaking character” to interject some unexpectedly caustic observations. This juxtaposition of tone works quite well, because Stewart only “slips” occasionally. Too bad MacFarlane didn’t employ similar restraint with the rest of his film.

In fairness, yes, by the climax I was surprisingly wrapped up in Ted’s fate; I guess the film finally wore me down. But that’s damning with rather faint praise. At 106 minutes, Ted is at least an hour too long ... which means, obviously, that MacFarlane simply hasn’t delivered enough material for a feature film.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe it's just me, but the whole idea of a toy complementing a man's personality reminds of The Beaver (besides, not much time has elapsed between the two releases...)