Sunday, July 8, 2012

movie review: 'ted'

Short version: Yeah, I know that this review is late, and I should be talking about Chris Brown. Fuck that, I don't care, I just saw the movie, and I want to talk about it. As it is, it's a great comedy with Seth MacFarlane finally bringing his A-game. Great acting from the leads on a utterly conventional and unessential plot, but still definitely worth seeing as it's probably one of the funniest movies you'll see this year. Go see this movie. 

Longer version...

You know, you can't talk about Ted without talking about Seth MacFarlane, and you can't talk about MacFarlane without talking about Family Guy, so let's get this part out of the way quickly (I've never watched American Dad or The Cleveland Show, so I can't and won't comment on them). Yes, I liked Family Guy. I think the first five seasons are damn excellent with some clever gags, some surprisingly deft dialogue, some quirky subtext, and some actual genuine heart you wouldn't expect. My favourite character is Brian (obviously), with Stewie and Peter being close seconds. I found the show to be genuinely entertaining, a great way to waste time, and the more clever of the pop culture references always amused me. 

And then... something happened. It was after it had been moved to Adult Swim, and after 'Blue Harvest', the first Star Wars themed episode, but I can't quite pinpoint the exact moment when it happened. What I do know is that after that point, Family Guy stopped being the consistently funny and occasionally heartwarming show I liked and became something else. And that something else was darker, more cynical, and loaded with the kind of anti-humour gags that only work on Adult Swim when you're baked out of your mind. The show began relying much more heavily on cut-away gags that rarely worked as well as they should have, and even some of the novelty episodes began feeling phoned in (this was present in both 'Something Something Dark Side' and 'It's A Trap!', the followup Star Wars episodes). It began in Season 6 and then actively got a lot worse in Season 7 and 8 - suddenly, outside of a few glimmering moments like 'Brian & Stewie' and the 'Road To...' episodes, the show got a lot less watchable. The show became a depressing, angry shell of its former self, and I really found it unpleasant. And plenty of critics agreed, attacking the show for its reliance on cheap shock humour, bad cutaway gags, and terrible pop culture references. Even Seth MacFarlane admitted he wasn't a fan of what Family Guy had become.

So when Ted was announced, a film that Seth MacFarlane wrote, directed, and starred in, I was a little nervous about how good it could possibly be. I was sure that some of the traditional Family Guy tropes would be there, but which would he include, and which would work? Would it be like Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, a critical flop because it took the excuse of an R-rating and cranked up the scatological humour without a better script, using the higher budget to make everything bigger and more stupid? Or would it be like the excellent Simpsons movie, a show that harkened back to the best of the source material, simply making it bigger and better along the way?

And I'm extremely happy to say that Ted, the film about a slacker (played by Mark Wahlberg), his exasperated girlfriend (played by Mila Kunis), and his foul-mouthed, sexually-depraved teddy bear (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), all set in downtown Boston is pretty damn great. And believe me, considering that this film has such a basic, stock comedy plot (guy caught between girl who wants him to mature and over-the-top friend who wants him to party and stay the same), I was expecting to be disappointed. And I'm not even joking about this part - you can spot everything in this plot beat-for-beat all the way through. There are no surprise twists in the plot that make it stand out or become all that special.

But if anything, I think this works a bit in the film's favour. Instead of focusing on the plot (in this sort of comedy film, the least relevant thing), it focuses on characters, snappy dialogue, and the jokes. In fact, when this film tries for a tense, high energy third act (with a kidnapping subplot tied in with Giovanni Ribisi who plays creepy with terrifying skill), it's easily the weakest part of the film. Sure, there's heart in it, and it's a little moving (well, it really tries to be - Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis work their asses off here), but it doesn't go for the twist necessary to make the emotional landing stick as well as it should, which I found a bit disappointing.

But let's talk about the acting. For starters, Mark Wahlberg kills in this movie, simply because of his delivery. Wahlberg is a bit of a strange actor, in that he always gets very invested in his roles and tends to deliver his lines with almost childlike sincerity and sometimes uncanny intensity. It becomes stupid as all hell in movies like The Happening, but here, it works really well, as Mark Wahlberg plays the man-child struggling to grow up with a lot of heart and passion. Mila Kunis also does really well here, as she proves (once again) to be a great comic actress with snappy timing, bringing a fair amount of energy and a surprising amount of heart to the film. And, well, of course the voice acting by Seth MacFarlane is top notch, but also plays the emotional beats pretty damn well.

The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. Joel McHale of Community is awesome (like always), but I don't think he brought the necessary 'complete slimeball' element that would have made his character click perfectly. Patrick Warburton is consistently funny (particularly for two cameo sequences that were pretty damn awesome), but he's not helped by the fact that Matt Walsh steps in with his brand of deadpan comedy and steals every scene he's in. And while I don't think Giovanni Ribisi was needed in this film, he does play a creepy stalker character (mustache included) pretty impressively. But with the exception of the celebrity cameos (which I won't spoil, because they are AWESOME), the rest of the supporting cast is really kind of forgettable, there for their cheap jokes and little else.

And now we have to talk about the jokes. I'm not going to spoil any of them, but I will say this: there's something for everyone here. If you like cheap gross-out humour, there's that. If you like funny dialogue, there's that. If you like funny narration (in this case, delivered by a Patrick Stewart who sounds stoned out of his mind), this film delivers. If you like edgy racial humour, there's some of that (I really don't like this sort of humour, but I will admit MacFarlane does execute well here). If you like stoner/druggie humour, there's plenty of that. If you like sex humour, this film delivers in spades. And if you like cutaway gags, cameos, and reference humour, or if you're a film geek, you're going to fucking love this movie. My favourite was one between Wahlberg and Kunis early in the film based on a certain film from the seventies, and I won't say anymore.

But frankly, what makes this film work for me is that all of the actors really give it their all. This isn't a phoned-in cash-grab movie - this is a film straight from Seth MacFarlane's heart, the kind of painfully honest filmmaking you don't see much anymore. Ted works so well, even despite a conventional plot and style, because makes the emotional beats work and it makes you care about the characters, even though one of them is a plush, foul-mouthed teddy bear. And yeah, it's easily one of the funniest movies you'll see this year, and as a film debut for Seth MacFarlane, it's a great start - I definitely want to see more. Highly recommended.

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