There’s no question that over the last decade, my least favorite film genre has become what was once a favorite — the R-rated comedy. With the exception of “The Hangover” and the under-appreciated “Role Models,” the genre founded by comedic geniuses like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, and Richard Pryor is utterly lost now in charmless, thoroughly grotesque raunch. And in the case of most everything Will Ferrell and company touches, an off-putting contempt for the audience.
Things have deteriorated to a point where I no longer rent these films or even request free screeners. And when screeners arrive unsolicited, I dread the thought of watching them, and that dread is almost always well-founded.
From the arrival of its first Red Band trailer, though, co-writer/director Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” looked and felt like something different. There was no shortage of f-words and raunch, but there was also charm, warmth, and wit. That few-minute trailer made me laugh harder than the entire Apatow/Ferrell canon put together, and this odd feeling crept over me I hadn’t felt in years — the feeling that a trailer had actually made me want to see a movie.
Before I would actually get a chance to see “Ted,” this story of a 35 year-old man and his best friend, a foul-mouthed teddy bear brought to life, would win over critics, break a few box-office records, and eventually gross a jaw-dropping half-billion dollars worldwide.
Try to imagine the expectations “Ted” had to meet when I pressed “play.”
But meet them it did.
“Ted’s” story is pure boilerplate (not a criticism): John (the always great Mark Wahlberg) is a man-child in one of those bromances that perpetuates his pot-smoking, slacker adolescence. This, despite the fact he’s blessed with Lori (Mila Kunis), his gorgeous, accomplished girlfriend of four years who’s this close to outgrowing him.
Will John grow up and keep the girl? Or will John choose his bromance with Ted?
You might think that what sets “Ted” apart from dozens of others is the title character, a flawlessly CGI’d teddy bear voiced by MacFarlane; but it’s not. Don’t misunderstand — the idea of Ted is a good one and a brilliant marketing gimmick. But had Ted been created by Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis, I’d hate him just as much as I do Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.
First and foremost, what makes “Ted” work so well are the film’s relationships. The warmth is real, the off-putting ironic distance that decimates so many modern comedies is kept at bay, and the sincerity is sincere. You really want these characters to figure out a way to work it all out.
Secondly, while “Ted” is as raunchy as any of its counterparts, MacFarlane sets the perfect tone in the presentation. This is hard to explain, but with so many of these other so-called comedies, I feel like I’m being forced to wallow in filth; I’m embarrassed to watch with my wife and afterwards I need to take a bath. While these films obviously aim for laughs, whether it’s grade school kids talking about anal sex or whatever the hell, the filth is presented straight — as though it’s the most normal thing in the world.
MacFarlane, however, knows he’s being naughty and wants to be naughty, and what that does to remove the darkness from the humor can’t be underestimated. Instead of laughing as though you approve of how starkly over the line the humor is, you’re laughing along with a mischievous creator who manages to retain his and your sense of innocence.
Finally, Ted is one of my favorite types of characters, the type you don’t see all that often anymore. He never breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly (a conceit), but Ted almost does as he comments on the action around him in a self-aware way that communicates he knows it’s all a movie. This is a comedic art-form Bob Hope perfected in his hey-day and a disaster waiting to happen if you miss the mark.
At a trim 106-minutes (I’m looking at you Judd Apatow) and no sacred cows spared from the good-natured (and non-stop) jokes, “Ted” hits the bullseye.
Oh, there’s also an “Airplane!” reference delivered with about 19 layers of meta brilliance.
The “Ted” Bluray hits store shelves Tuesday, December 11, and includes the theatrical and an unrated cut. This is a review of the former. You can pre-order at Amazon and get a list of the disc’s many bonus features.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC