Contrary to what The Internet would have you believe, going into a movie unbiased is not the same thing as going into a movie without having any ideas about it already taking shape. As such, it’s not uncommon to find yourself unsurprised by how a movie (or a season’s worth of movies) turns out.
For example, if you’d told me last year that (for me) The Dark Knight Rises was going to be a moderate disappointment compared to its predecessor, that The Amazing Spider-Man was going to be at best a tedious slog, that I was going to love ParaNorman and that The Avengers was going to set the world on fire … my response would probably have been “well, duh.” Sometimes you can just see these things coming (some further in advance than others, obviously.)
But sometimes you do actually get surprised, and not always – as one may assume – by under-the-radar material that you just haven’t heard much about, or things that just hadn’t interested you. Two years ago I was shocked at how much I despised Monsters, a film I was expecting to enjoy (and whose director now has my stomach in knots over what he’ll do to my beloved Godzilla.) After a year of my horror-geek pals telling me how great the “mumblecore” anthology movie “V/H/S” was, I finally saw it myself this week and hated (almost) every minute of it.
So … surprises happen, is what I’m getting at here.
Even still, had you told me last year that one of the better experiences I’d end up having at the movies this summer (to say nothing of being one of the more popular and talked about hits of the season) would be a lowbrow “bromance” comedy about a foul-mouthed stuffed animal from the creator of Family Guy, I’d have been likely to scoff. But here, with summer officially gone and the fall Oscar Season rolling in with the fog, I find myself looking back and realizing that in a year where everyone from Ridley Scott to Christopher Nolan to Peter Parker to Pixar managed to let me down to one degree or another, Ted will probably end up being one of the year’s best movies.
I wish I was aiming for some kind of “hidden depths” business here, but I’m not. There’s no great secret symbolic meaning to Ted, no subversive undercurrent or alternate interpretation that makes it more than just a movie about a slacker and his talking teddy bear. Tedis exactly what Ted was billed as, a send-up of Disney-style “magical friend movies” wherein the credits have long since rolled and we now rejoin our ersatz Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh to find them grown up into a maturity-avoiding slacker and his boorish, enabling best buddy.
It’s a genius concept. Firstly, so much of the modern buddy-comedy genre is built around the formula of the (slightly) more stable guy being torn between his adult responsibilities (employment prospects, girlfriend/wife, etc.) and his trouble-making, bad influence of a best friend who in part represents – either literally (think Jonah Hill in Superbad) or symbolically (Jason Segel in I Love You Man) – an attempt to hold on to his own irresponsibility and thus youth. Presenting that formula in the most literal sense possible, i.e. the immature best buddy is the guy’s old teddy bear – an actual childhood throwback? Jackpot.
It’s a killer hook. You get it, you imagine how funny it could be, and the movie’s task is simply to live up to that. And it’s not like wringing humor out of having things that shouldn’t talk at all talk in unexpected ways is unfamiliar territory to writer/director/co-star Seth McFarlane, late of Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show. But Ted actually does more than just deliver on the promise of making something that immediately sounds funny (badly behaved teddy bear) funny, it gets down under the surface of its own joke and finds something that could almost be mistaken for heart – so much so that the only part of the film that rings false (though still funny) is the shoe-horning in of a perfunctory villain who exists solely to deliver a largely unnecessary action climax.
The fact is, for a movie that trades in deceptively “dumb” humor, Ted has a surprisingly smart script and a really good central cast. It’s popular to knock McFarlane’s pop culture ubiquity, but the man knows his way around a scene, and he’s an incredibly gifted vocal performer. Mark Wahlberg is perfectly cast as Ted’s human pal, as the film only works if you buy that the bear is regarded by this guy as a best friend in every sense of the word without any sense of winking detachment. Wahlberg’s best quality as an actor has always been his unflagging earnestness – he always looks like a 12 year-old who has just been informed that Old Yeller needs to be put down – and seeming inability to express irony. And Mila Kunis continues to prove herself a talent to be reckoned with, investing a character who is almost the film’s default antagonist (the no-fun girlfriend who wants to break up the bromance so John will get his boring professional life together) with more than enough depth to make her just as sympathetic as the guys.
It’s a movie that just makes one smart decision after another, from taking the risk of going for broke on an incredibly odd movie reference gag and taking it all the way over the edge to the essentially perfect design of its title character. The temptation to make Ted specific in some way – maybe give him a hat, or a shirt, or some other kind of identifying prop outside of his decidedly un-childlike voice – must have been tremendous, but it would’ve ruined the intended joke. Ted looks like something a child would win at a carnival, or pluck from the back shelves of a vintage toy shop with a pronouncement of “this is the one!” – a bear that you could actually see being held on to for years and years after other, flashier stuffed friends had lost some of their licensed-luster. He’s practically a distillation of The Teddy Bear as a concept, which makes his debauched antics much more surreal and, more importantly, makes his subtle, heartfelt moments actually work.
You may be asking why I felt like revisiting the surprising greatness of Ted when I already gave it a positive review when it came out. Well, in thinking on it recently, it occurred to me that the film’s success (it was a big, big hit both stateside and internationally, opening ahead of even The Dark Knight in some European territories) is actually an enormously positive sign.
The current hand wringing at the current state of Hollywood product is, I think, overstated, but there’s no denying that troubling trends exist: too many sequels, too many remakes, too much emphasis on licensed properties and established IPs. Too much PG-13 neutering. Too many executives convinced audiences aren’t open to new material, and too many audiences eager to prove them right.
Well, Ted may not have been a cinematic game changer, but it was an original script. It is a proudly R-rated comedy. And it didn’t come pre-sold as a sequel to something, or a remake of something, or the adaptation of a bestselling book, comic, game, toy or whatever else. In fact, the only thing Ted had to sell itself on was being a funny original idea. And enough audiences looked at said idea and responded with, “Hey, let’s go see that!”
That’s a good sign. That’s a victory. However small, and even if you didn’t particularly like the movie … that, friends, is a victory.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.