Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane escapes suburbia with Ted, an affectionately raunchy comedy about a 35-year-old Boston man whose best friend is a teddy bear brought to life by a magical childhood wish. But while fans of MacFarlane will certainly appreciate that his trademark retro-infused, irreverent humor is still intact, an overreliance on nostalgia and conventional storytelling techniques keeps Ted from achieving greatness.
As a young boy, John Bennett wanted nothing more than for his beloved teddy bear Ted (voice of MacFarlane) to come to life. Incredibly, that wish was granted. But now that John (played as an adult by Mark Wahlberg) is all grown up, his boyhood dream has become a nightmarish nuisance. After four years of dating the beautiful Lori (Mila Kunis), he knows that it's time to make a commitment. But with Ted around, John seems locked in a state of arrested adolescence: He smokes so much weed that he can't get to work on time, the Flash Gordon DVD in his living room seems to be on a perpetual loop, and every chance John and Lori have to steal a moment alone, their plush little pal shows up ready to party. Meanwhile, just when John and Lori hatch a plan to save their relationship, Ted finds himself in danger and needs his best friend more than ever before.
With Family Guy, MacFarlane's unique talent for self-sabotaging jokes, anarchic flights of fancy, and unabashed nostalgia found him emerging as one of his generation's most prominent comedic voices. Considering the show made its debut in 1999, a transition into feature films has been a long time coming. Strangely, after more than a decade of subverting the typical American sitcom, the man who gave us a martini-sipping dog relies heavily on tired cinematic tropes instead of turning them on their heads. The result is a movie that definitely delivers some sporadic hearty laughs, yet feels far too safe to leave a lasting impression.
Perhaps it's a result of MacFarlane playing his hand too soon (the very first time we see Ted as an "adult" he's doing bong rips on the couch and complaining about the quality of his stash), or sacrificing the more interesting aspects of the plot (like Ted's flirtation with celebrity) to stick with familiar story beats. Whatever the reason, the humor in Ted plateaus relatively early and never quite soars to the absurd heights that make the writer/director such an acquired taste. At the same time, the irony of MacFarlane's penchant for repeatedly falling back on nostalgia for laughs while telling the story of a man-child who is struggling with adult responsibility completely undermines the character's fixation on the past, as well as any of the drama that could have helped Ted resonate with thirtysomethings who cling to their Playstation 3's like a 12-year-old on Christmas Day. Of course, if MacFarlane were merely going for absurdity, this would be of little consequence, but the fact that he instead makes a conscious choice to stick to formula indicates that he wants the drama to work as well, and as a result the humor and the emotion are both blunted.
Fortunately, even when nothing else is working as well as it should, the cast are there to help pick up the slack. Taking his Boston accent from The Fighter to cartoonish new heights and nailing every line of oddball dialogue with genuine conviction, Wahlberg makes fans wish that he'd venture into comedy a bit more often than he does, while MacFarlane makes Ted endearingly crass, Kunis plays a pitch-perfect straight girl, and Giovanni Ribisi gives a hilariously creepy performance as a demented father with designs on the talking teddy bear. A slew of playful cameos also make for fun casual viewing, and the special effects used to animate Ted are positively seamless. In the end, audiences aren't likely to walk out of Ted with frowns on their faces, but at the same time, they're not likely to walk out gasping for breath and clinging to their aching sides either. Perhaps once MacFarlane gets the courage to truly break the mold, we'll finally get a comedy from him with genuine substance, rather than polyfill stuffing.