Seth MacFarlane likes to pile jokes on top of jokes, sneak jokes in between jokes, and make jokes about the fact that he’s making jokes. Though they’re mostly an excuse to race-bait and make people uncomfortable for laughing at his lightly button-pushing 9/11 bombs and jibes at Jews, the kicker about MacFarlane’s jokes is that they’re otherwise actually funny, and he knows how to structure them for maximum payoff. But that’s not the same as saying he’s ever had much narrative ambition; Family Guy, by far his most famous creation, is more or less about the extent to which it indulges its own non-sequiturs. Stretching his legs in Hollywood (by way of his Boston shooting location) for the first time, MacFarlane has attempted a feature-length narrative with Ted, a movie about a stunted man-child whose unwillingness to let go of adolescence has taken the literal form of a beloved toy come to life. The usual MacFarlane humor, aided by the increased latitude he gets with an R-rated movie that he’s always been denied on television, is as prevalent, heavy-handed, and undeniably funny as ever. But, c-bombs aside, you can just as easily get the jokes in this movie from Family Guy, if they’re your thing. The question that weighs Ted down is, why is it at its core just a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy?
John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is the man-child, and Wahlberg plays up the New England accent and never bats an eye delivering gleefully offensive dialogue. MacFarlane performs the voice of the titular character, Wahlberg’s lifelong best friend, a stuffed bear who’s magically come to life, gotten B-level famous for it, and weathered his way through the Behind the Music-esque drug-and-alcohol descent that losing fame usually entails. Lori (Mila Kunis) is John’s long-suffering girlfriend, who needs the bear out of the boyfriend’s life so she can settle down (with the latter). Sure, there are jokes about watching a depraved, lascivious teddy bear take a bleached blonde on top of some vegetables at a grocery store, and yes, you can’t help laughing at it. But surrounding these kinds of jokes is a movie that hits all of the romantic comedy notes and plot points (man-child fucks up one too many times by tearing shit up with buddies, loses girl, plots increasingly over-the-top stunts to win her back) but only occasionally attempts to subvert them. You’d expect more from MacFarlane, simply because his sitcom is usually so dedicated to turning the sitcom inside out. It’s too bad his movie doesn’t do the same.
Instead of getting absurd and meta all over, MacFarlane plays it safe by asking us to care whether Wahlberg can actually learn to grow up, shuck the albatross of the bear, and become a mature adult for the sake of his relationship. This is probably a good thing for any 35 year-old to learn, especially if he’d rather rip bongs with his childhood buddy than pay attention to his girlfriend. But why, given a shot at making a big-budget feature film, did MacFarlane choose this story? It clearly mirrors the relationship between the father and the dog on Family Guy without adding anything new that stands out. MacFarlane seems uncomfortable outside of his usual territory, as if he’s decided he’ll be happy enough making lackluster use of live action and an increased leeway to drop his beloved shocking epithets. The biggest joke isn’t on romantic comedies, it’s on the audience for actually paying attention to MacFarlane as he tries to make one.