Saturday, December 22, 2012
(R/unrated, 2012, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, street date: December 11, 2012, SRP: $34.98)
Speaking as both a casual filmgoer and critically-minded gatekeeper, it sucks to admit when your expectations are low in terms of watching a movie. Anticipating or planning to see a film shouldn’t warrant the kind of resignation that compels someone to make a reservation to a fast food restaurant, but there are occasions when you feel like there aren’t any better options. I’ve been a proud movie junkie for as long as I could place a tape in a VCR, but my feelings about popular contemporary cinema doesn’t fill me with the promise I once had as a child. Certain movies I’ve respected even as I lambasted them, others caught me by surprise and were discernible enough to become an instant favorite (classic, maybe?), and countless many I've never needed to revisit in my lifetime. Seeing the good in something like Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive, a liberating blast of tasteless comic splatter grounded by a sincere affection for characters and story, way back when I was a preteen, I get more frustrated than I care to be when a huge percentage of movies made these days don’t give me a clear reason to engage with them. Even worse, they can fail completely to entertain in the purest, popcorn-and-soda sense of the term.
Lofty as I just sounded, I brought this up because Ted is one of those movies that uses my hopes as the bar in a continuing series of cinematic limbo tournaments. And Seth MacFarlane is the master of ceremonies.
I confess to giving up on Family Guy a long time ago, around the time it birthed out clone programs in the superior American Dad and the more direct spin-off The Cleveland Show. MacFarlane seemingly gave the people what they want, which is a dependable show biz stratagem, except that I felt like things were already stuck in a rut creatively. Feeling that the show was overstaying its welcome, I became susceptible to the competition from other networks. My nose for irreverence and shamelessness in comedy had reached the point where I just felt there were consistently funnier programs on Comedy Central (Reno 911!), Cartoon Network (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Children’s Hospital), Starz (Party Down) and FX (Archer, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
However, I’m not one of those easy MacFarlane bashers. I honestly believe this man has bona fide comic chops that were put to side-splitting use on televised roasts, SNL hosting gigs, Robot Chicken guest slots and supporting performances. I wasn’t too jaded to admire his voice-over role in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, mostly because Guillermo Del Toro, for all his visionary gifts, has just as much humor and pop culture savvy as MacFarlane (watch Hellboy II and see if you can guess which shots echo 1980s Peter Gabriel videos). For all the salient points made about his undeniable derivations and ADHD tangents, these are not necessarily flaws worthy of crucifixion. I’ve been a long time fan of Better Off Dead… because of its cartoon-oriented audacity in a flesh-and-blood world, and the flights of fancy they summon have a line on what MacFarlane does in the present. I can even leave John Cusack, Curtis Armstrong and, if my arm were twisted, Diane Franklin out of the equation and still admire it.
Not only that, but Seth MacFarlane as a singer/composer has a genuine affection for swinging tunes beyond the confines of overexposed TV themes.
And yet I drifted away from his Fox programming block aware that as subversive as he can get, watching MacFarlane take more assured risks gave me such a greater appreciation that a typical Sunday night would likely feel like a cosmic anal raspberry on my intelligence.
MacFarlane’s belated feature debut Ted would appear to be the perfect encapsulation of this push-and-pull attitude I’ve gotten accustomed to. The premise is a mix of comforting sardonic convention and ribald yet sincere absurdity with definite pluses in both elements. Following his gigs with Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay, Mark Wahlberg demonstrates again an undeniable ease with screwball comedy and a playful self-effacement with regards to his Boston roots. No stranger to MacFarlane’s world, Mila Kunis plays against the raunchy material winningly straight. And the creator of and disembodied voice behind the titular stuffed boor is ready with moments of hilarity that molest your funny bone like a dog in heat instead of merely giving it a tickle.
Whimsy and offense do the Tube Snake Boogie throughout the film as early as the Patrick Stewart-narrated prologue. It’s Christmastime in Beantown circa 1985, and lonely boy John Bennett is not allowed to join in any reindeer games, especially when the neighborhood tots rein in on the presence of the one Jewish kid on the block and beat on him like a wounded deer. Yearning for a permanent best friend, Johnny unwraps a teddy bear and eventually makes an innocent wish for it to come alive so he can have a genuine Thunder Buddy for life. The next magical morning sees Teddy walking and talking in typically adorable fashion, and you know what that means: instantaneous and not at all impertinent celebrity coverage! But no matter, because 15 minutes of fame has nothing on the lifelong bond between a boy and his bear.
Years later, the friendship between the now 35-year-old John (Wahlberg) and his conveniently vulgar toy companion (MacFarlane) has grown clearly co-dependent in all the wrong ways. A rental car agent on the verge of a branch manager promotion promising $38,000 a year and connections with Tom Skerritt (of Up in Smoke and The Dead Zone esteem), John is also approaching an anniversary with his PR relations girlfriend Lori (Kunis), who’d rather not see Bennett holding himself back via pot-fueled regression sessions with Ted in front of the TV, where the 1980 flop feature adaptation of Flash Gordon plays in heavy rotation. Furthermore, Ted has become the Snuggles mascot’s lecherous doppelganger, cuddling up to hookers and white trash blondes whilst making smart-alecky ridicule of practically everything he can think of, from women to retards to Mexicans to Adam Sandler's "just awful" Jack and Jill.
Lori panics after a romantic dinner with John results in coming home to find one of Ted’s slutty playmates made like an untrained dog in a John Waters film. John offers to help Ted strike out on his own, from finding his own apartment to inadvertently landing a job at a grocery store. Despite all the compromises to maturity and woman love that John takes heed of, he’s mentally Krazy Glued on the couch, sharing a bong with his Brother Bear as Ted Danson narcissistically recounts all the behind-the-scenes debauchery in a Cheers DVD box set interview. John betrays Lori for the last time and forces Ted to develop some shred of sentiment, just in time for a trio of straw villains to make their moves on both Lori (Joel McHale as Rex, Lori’s smarmy vulture of a boss poised to swoop on her for the rebound) and Ted (Giovanni Ribisi as obsessed fan Donny and Aedin Mincks as his chubby son Robert).
Fundamentalist sociopath Donny and his equally dangerous seedling appear like baddies out of Beethoven or its first sequel to drive the film into the danger zone. The height of the former’s madness is a serpentine dance routine in front of a Tiffany music video, a coincidental reminder of that disturbed fan documentary named after the tune Donny dances to (I Think We’re Alone Now).
On both technical and performance levels, Ted is surprisingly strong. The occasionally motion-captured CG animation of Ted is expressive and seamless, with leads Wahlberg and Kunis offering convincing chemistry not just with each other, but also with the digitally-rendered Ted. Mark Wahlberg is the movie’s own major league pitch-hitter, giving MacFarlane’s humor the type of precision, charm and devotion that eclipses all that had come before on TV. Committing fully to the premise and demonstrating such looseness, Wahlberg feels right at home bouncing off MacFarlane’s bawdiness, not just in the vaunted gag where he rapidly tries to narrow down the name of Ted’s bimbo squeeze, but even with bits that reference Joan Crawford and Rita Coolidge from out of the 1980s ether. And despite the boys’ club attitude all too eager to treat Lori as a stumbling block towards growing up, the lovable Mila Kunis refuses to condescend or slip into easy malice.
Eventually, the pot smoke clears and it becomes plain that for all the touches of classic sentimental uplift, third act machinations and convincing live actors, you’ve just toked up another obvious MacFarlane joint. He’s as tangential as ever in his approach to easy gags, with John having a flashback to that scene in Airplane! which memorably sent up Saturday Night Fever, a delightful cameo from “half-Muslim” chanteuse Norah Jones where she gets blamed for 9/11 by her fuzzy one night stand (“Actually, you weren't so bad for a guy with no penis”) and a bronzed Lance Armstrong testicle which leads to a reference to a certain almond candy slogan. Jabs at Katy Perry and Brandon Routh which have been no doubt made with sharper witticisms before prove bland as punch lines here. MacFarlane gets a protracted fight scene between John and Ted which harkens to the standby Peter vs. the Giant Chicken bouts from Family Guy, the one moment where overt predictability is forgiven because, by virtue of Wahlberg and MacFarlane’s Everyschmuck teaming, it works like gang bangers.
If you think that the last sentence was an easy swing at deviant humor, that’s primarily because MacFarlane (aided in screenwriting by regular Family Guy writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) does coax some unabashedly bawdy laughter time and again. Ted’s refreshingly normal existence as a burnt-out celebrity (“This is how the cast of Diff'rent Strokes must feel”) doesn’t stifle his penchant for finding creative ways to disgust, degrade and deadpan his way through a depressingly blue-collar world. Hand lotion and parsnips will forever be viewed with suspicion thanks to his grocery store antics. No one will ever throw a teddy bear in a business suit and expect not to subconsciously hear Ted’s honest gripe that “I look like something you give to your kid when you tell him Grandma died.” And wait until the movie offers up its one moment of R-rated fan service in the midst of a coke-fueled free-for-all, one instigated by the “Savior of the Universe” himself, only to forever taint children’s precious memories of Garfield.
Like Flash Gordon, MacFarlane is, to quote from the book of Ted, “a study in contrast.” He has enough of a grasp of context to make a damn good zinger involving Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but he can’t refrain from the pointless junk culture allusions that have now become a crutch for bad Train singles. Finally crafting character moments that ought to carry the movie in lean 90 minute fashion, there’s no real need for him to pad it up with a jarring car chase finale that shows precious little mischief. Deploying a gay joke which happily lands a silent walk-on from one of the early faces of modern comedy’s douchebag fulfillment nadir, you still have to put up with thudding “no homo” asides and shrill secondary characters like the aforementioned bimbo girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and little Robert who are merely inconsequential devices meant for scorn. And as self-effacing and, yes, subtle as he can be at points, the multi-faceted MacFarlane cashes in his clout to make a feature debut that doesn’t just make me feel like I never missed much since the last full Family Guy episode slipped near my radar, but also makes the glib Adam Sandler smackdown seem frustratingly prophetic.
The cuddly, crass Ted is hilarious enough to put That’s My Boy to shame, no contest, but I truly hope that MacFarlane proves himself the equivalent of Yogi Berra in our mainstream comedy ballpark.
The Blu-Ray and DVD releases of Ted provide an extended cut of the film which for the most part either adds to the prologue, including some unused blue banter with John’s parents (Ralph Garman, Alex Borstein) and more motivation for Donny, or flatters Joel McHale’s Rex with some additional lusty behavior. The 1.85:1 image of the Blu-Ray (1080p, AVC MPEG-4 encoding) is perfect given that an HD Panavision camera was used for the majority of the film; even with all of the various natural lighting techniques (the turquoise glow of an aquarium, the many lamp lights in restaurants and hotels), there’s no drop off in fine background detail or any bogus color palettes/flesh tones. You’ll know how good it is by just how potently Ted fits into the scenery without any major pixel-related dead giveaways. The DTS 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack utilizes Walter Murphy’s ebulliently jazzy score to its full appeal, with noticeable multi-channel separation during more atmospheric moments of party and peril. Optional Dolby 2.0 tracks are presented in Spanish, French or descriptive English voiceover captioning for the sight-impaired (all three languages make up the subtitle features, too.
Exclusive to the BD edition are 15 minutes of deleted scenes, a nice percentage of which compose the discarded B-plot when Lori decides to give in to Rex’s advances. A karaoke bar courtship proves the calm before the thunder that rolls once Lori returns to Rex’s swanky abode. Much less nauseous but more unmemorable is the attempted romance between two of John’s co-workers, a funny foreigner and a bubbly blonde, during the cokehead Flash Gordon soiree, which also yields unused bits involving Ted in a washing machine and John’s hyper-awkward small talk with various partygoers. Another BD-only bonus is a ten-minute reel of alternate lines showcasing MacFarlane coming up with a batch of equally hit-or-miss ad libs. Expect a random shout-out to Australian actress Toni Collette, some hilarious throwaway lines regarding Ted’s embarrassed “dapper” job-hunting look and the end-of-feature highlight allowing Ted to riff on the Cookie Monster, Barack Obama and Christopher Hewett (of Mr. Belvedere) in multiple attempts to sway John to ditch Lori for Flash Gordon.
The gag reel is readily available on either format for the eternal joy of those aware of Mila Kunis’ spontaneous giggle fits. MacFarlane makes a wager at one point that if she can complete a dinner conversation with a straight face, he’ll never force her to sing on Family Guy ever again (remember Mila-as-Meg doing Liesl from The Sound of Music?). At that point, Wahlberg is the one struggling not to break character as Kunis desperately tries to move the scene forward. Throughout both the gag reel and alternate lines, one can see all the various digitized incarnations of Ted from an innocuous still image to a sentient monster seemingly made of either lead, mimetic poly-alloy or chocolate (talk about a Pooh Bear!).
A three-part behind-the-scenes documentary (at 25 minutes) pays further attention to the live integration of Ted to great effect. The leads recall alternating between acting with a hand-controlled live-size teddy, a pair of eyes connected to a rod stand and, of course, nothing at all. MacFarlane’s off-camera motion capture acting can be glimpsed in screen-to-shot comparisons. Finally, the VFX artists acknowledge the post-production techniques used to give Ted a clear physical presence, like a grayscale model of Ted which can be used to simulate a variety of actions like running, jumping and, of course, boning. Hardcore devotees of the Teddy Bear Scuffle can watch an isolated featurette on the rendering of that scene in a BD-exclusive six-minute short.
The scene-specific audio commentary accompanying the theatrical cut is provided by MacFarlane, co-writer Alec Sulkin and an on-the-clock Wahlberg (he bids farewell a quarter of the way into the film). MacFarlane carries the track with his casually witty, alternately self-aggrandizing/self-effacing recollections of producing his first feature. He’s as keen to make fun of whatever digital tweaking was (or wasn’t?) used on McHale’s Rex as he is to point out an Indiana Jones poster was pasted in for certain background shots to preserve continuity. Wahlberg’s early departure is unfortunate, but MacFarlane and Sulkin continue as good foils for each other, striking a thorough balance between dry camaraderie and candid observation.
The BD combo pack provides both the DVD copy and an insert guiding you to either downloading a digital copy or accessing an Ultraviolet stream. Both the BD and DVD start off with previews for the likes of Death Race 3, Hit and Run and Bring It On: The Musical. Let’s bring that limbo bar down a little bit lower now, MC MacFuckface.
Movie grade: 3.5/5.
Video grade: 4.5/5.
Audio grade: 4/5.
Extras grade: 3.5/5.
Final grade: 3.5/5.