Friday, June 29, 2012

"TED" Talk: consistently funny, often brilliant

I thought I knew exactly what type of comedy I was about to watch with “Ted,” the debut film from Seth MacFarlane. I had seen all the trailers, from the red-band to the apple exclusives, and nothing indicated that it was going to be anything more than a one-joke film, something to occasionally chuckle at and immediately forget upon exiting the theater. Let’s be honest: “Family Guy” hasn’t been funny for a very long time, and “The Cleveland Show” is a mess. “American Dad” fares better, probably due to Chris McKenna. 
Almost immediately, “Ted” proves that it’s a cut above the rest. My hesitation about it dissipated within seconds, and I ended up loving the entire film. “Ted” is going to surprise a lot of people, and I fully expect it to be a box office success, hanging around in the top ten for quite a while. When people proclaim that a comedy about a talking teddy bear, starring Mark Wahlberg, is superior to the majority of big-budget blockbusters being released this summer, don’t be shocked. Don’t be fooled by the marketing; there’s a lot more going on than a bunch of offensive jokes. At the very core of the film is a big heart, which seems like it should be a given, yet is a key ingredient missing in most films these days. The film opens with a fairy-tale-esque prologue, narrated by the venerable Patrick Stewart (of course). John Bennett is a depressingly lonely boy with no friends; even the Jewish kid getting beaten up wants nothing to do with him. For Christmas, John receives a Teddy Bear, whom he wishes would come to life, which is magically granted. There is much media attention given to this Christmas miracle, but as the years pass, everyone inevitably stops caring. Now 35, John is a slacker, living with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), and Ted. But at the beginning of their 4th year together, John and Lori’s relationship is on the rocks as a result of John’s refusal to abandon his adolescent tendencies and let go of Ted, a strong enabler of these habits. 

With a plot that bare, one would imagine that the narrative would run out of steam towards the end, as many comedies tend to do (“I Love You, Man” comes to mind). MacFarlane, along with writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, keeps the plot moving as a wicked pace, barely ever pausing to take a breath. The jokes confidently take shots at pretty much every type of human being and attacks even the most touchy topics with an unstoppable irreverance or pause for anyone. Comedy breaks for no one, including Indians, Asians, Homosexuals, Jews, White people, rape, the mentally disabled, the physically handicapped, 9/11, etc., yet they are never vindictive; everything is delivered with good humor. It’s a fine line, and there are only a couple moments when the film teeters precariously on it, but MacFarlane & co. are able to prevent these jokes from being malicious.  Some jokes don’t always work, some are too forced (there are about one or two too many fart jokes), but it bounces back almost immediately with one that works brilliantly. 
All this wouldn’t have been as successful without the presence of Wahlberg and Kunis, presenting a relationship that is somehow believable, thanks in part to the strong chemistry they share. Wahlberg is an actor who is very hit or miss. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a couple directors know how to utilize his acting ability, and now I can add MacFarlane to that short list. It’s no secret that he’s great in comedy, demonstrated in “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Happening” but here he truly shines, hitting every joke perfectly, playing a very sincere character with childlike innocence better than most actors we’ve seen in the past playing this archetype. 
Mila Kunis is an actress that improves in every role, and “Ted” is no exception. There are some touching moments with her character and subtle nuances that elevate the scenes, bringing an unexpected amount of gravitas to the proceedings. She could have easily been presented as the prudish, crass girlfriend, becoming the film’s antagonist, however, the screenplay sides with her character, creating genuine pathos for this woman’s conflict, resulting in the audience rooting for Wahlberg to grow up not only because we like Ted but also because we empathize with Kunis’ Lori. 

In addition to being a great comedy, it features some genuinely exciting action beats, including a car chase, a battle high above ground, and a great one-on-one between Wahlberg and Ted. The double-edged effect is that these action scenes are the result of a sub-plot that feels a tad undercooked. Giovanni Ribisi, continuing his career of playing the most bizarre characters imaginable, is a stalker obsessed with Ted who wants the toy for his own son. There’s funny stuff going on here, and its never boring, but by the end, I couldn’t help but feeling that it didn’t get as much attention as it probably should have.  
There are some great supporting actors, including Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Ralph Garman, and Joel McHale (channeling Will Arnett), and also a handful of cameos, one in particular manages to triumphantly pay off multiple times. The effects on Ted are seamless, making him feel authentic and a true lead character; the attention to detail on the wear and tear of his body are a joy to behold.  It’s also a valid commentary on a generation that refuses to grow up; about knowing when to hold on and when to let go and how this stifles relationships with those around us. “Ted” is brutally honest, touching, consistently funny and oftentimes brilliant. 

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