In Ted, a grown man (Mark Wahlberg) must decide between his girlfriend (Mila Kunis) and a talking stuffed teddy bear (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) he’s loved since childhood. This is exactly the same plot as The Muppets, in which Jason Segel was forced to choose between Amy Adams and Kermit the Frog. The main difference, I think, is that at no time in The Muppets did Kermit take bong hits or snort cocaine or knock back tequila shots or have sex with a woman in the stock room of a grocery store.
Then again, The Muppets was a family film, and Ted is rated R as in really not suitable for children under 17 without an adult guardian. The movie marks the directorial debut of MacFarlane, who also co-wrote the script and voices the eponymous doll — and is everything one would expect from the creator of TV’s corrosively irreverent Family Guy, freed at last from the constraints of network TV. The cheerfully inappropriate sense of humor extends beyond four-letter words, although MacFarlane certainly has a way with those: This is a comedy designed to elicit gales of shocked laughter from its audience, which it often does, until it turns into E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
The set-up is fairy-tale simple. In 1985, a kid in the Boston suburbs named John wishes his beloved teddy bear would come to life, and the next morning it does. Flash-forward to the present: John is now 35 years old (Wahlberg) and still inseparable from Ted, who looks the same on the outside but has definitely matured on the inside. The doll is the embodiment of male arrested development: He’s almost 40 but still consumed with the relentless pursuit of hedonistic pleasures. He has the libido of an 18 year-old boy, and the impulsive nature to match.
John’s longtime girlfriend Lori (Kunis) has been accepting of Ted’s constant presence into the couple’s lives (one of the best conceits in the movie is that everyone can see Ted walk and talk, not just John). But she draws the line after the couple returns home from dinner to find Ted having a crazy party with four hookers, one of whom somehow managed to poop on the living room floor. Him or me, she tells John — Sophie’s choice.
At heart, Ted is just another story about a guy who must set aside his childish interests and grow up in order to keep the girl. But MacFarlane throws in a lot of stuff to distract you from the formula, beginning with his ingenious creation: Ted is a genuinely wondrous feat of special effects work, with simple but expressive features, that is blended so skillfully into the live action that the illusion is seamless. You forget you’re watching CG animation. Wahlberg is sweet and likable as the lunk-headed man-child (imagine how excruciating the movie would have been with, say, Adam Sandler in the role). As he does on Family Guy, MacFarlane constantly sneaks in pop-culture references and asides most noticeably shout-outs to 1980s movies, the decade that presumably influenced him the most. The references range from the overt (especially Flash Gordon and, hilariously, Octopussy) to the subtle (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Outsiders).
And then, in its final 20 minutes, Ted loses its merciless satirical edge and goes shockingly soft. Suddenly, the teddy bear that had earlier helped John choose which marijuana to buy (“Mind Rape,” “Gorilla Panic” or “This is Permanent”) is in mortal danger and needs to be rescued! MacFarlane decides to take the entire premise seriously and even tug at the heart strings because he can’t figure out a way to resolve the film’s central triangle. So he doesn’t. Instead, he opts to distract you with flashing lights and shockingly blatant sentimentality. During one long shot late in the film designed to make you blubber, I kept waiting for the director to pull the trigger and drop in the joke, but it never came: This is all meant to be taken at face value. Like last year’s Paul, another ode to 1980s-era filmmaking, Ted is more of an idea than a movie, a string of jokes and homages starring a cartoon and some game actors whose performances are destined to be enjoyed in chunks, rarely from start to finish, during momentary breaks of channel surfing on late-night TV.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth McFarlane (voice only), Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Patrick Warburton.
Director: Seth MacFarlane.
Screenwriters: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild.
Producers: Jason Clark, John Jacobs, Seth McFarlane.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 106 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, violence, adult themes. Opens Friday June 29 at area theaters.