When I told friends that I was eager to see the movie Ted this week, they responded with puzzled looks. “You mean the movie about the talking teddy bear,” they usually asked with their expressions looking as if they were eager for me to tell them of some rare Tarkovsky work or at least a Hal Hartley film named Ted.
No, I wanted to see the movie with the talking teddy bear. For one, it’s always a good idea to immerse yourself in two hours of pop culture every now and then, and for another, I really wasn’t expecting cinematic brilliance. Ted isn’t a good movie, but I wasn’t disappointed. My motive was in spending time watching Seth McFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, the ribald animated TV comedy, work out his ideas, especially those on masculinity.
I didn’t have to dig deep. That issue is a de facto priority for a film about a 35 year old man (Mark Wahlberg) trying to choose his loyalties between his adolescent self, which was egged on by the talking teddy bear, and his adult self and his love for his girlfriend of four years (Mila Kunis). McFarlane makes it pretty clear that the certainty contained in adolescent male pop culture tropes make it an attractive if untenable long term option versus the painful, messy, and often dull uncertainties of adult life.
I suspect that this is a central theme for McFarlane as he underwent his own transformation from a Zuckerman-ish overgrown geek to a stylish man during the period when after Family Guy was cancelled by Fox and before it was brought back a few seasons later.
Now, if only the movie could have made his points more lucidly. McFarlane wrote the movie with Family Guy collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, and it tries to get away with the same caveats that make the TV show charming. Piling on pop culture references, and comic tableaux take precedent over narrative and character development. You can get away with that during a half hour TV show (and Family Guy’s lack of significant narrative is what mostly separates it from the Simpsons), but in a 106 minute movie, you need real, developed characters with believable agendas. In Ted, the only character is fully developed is the teddy bear, and a foul mouthed stuffed animal that does bong hits and has appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson can carry a movie some of the way, but not all the way.
Still, I’ll go to McFarlane’s next film, and maybe his third. He has a lot of ideas, and sooner or later my interest in them may not surprise my friends anymore.