Silver Screen: Ted ***1/2
Dark Knight Rises was certainly the summer's most anticipated blockbuster, but the big sleeper hit of the season is the far more modest comedy Ted-- modest referring to the budget rather than the movie's gleefully crass sensibility.
Ted is a bawdy, delayed coming-of-age tale from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. It's billed as a live-action comedy, although the fulcrum of the movie is a computer-animated teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane) who comes to life when his new owner, John, a lonely young boy, makes a wish that his stuffed animal could be his real friend.
A couple of decades later, that lonely boy has grown up to be a slightly less lonely man-child (Mark Wahlberg). Ted is still his best friend, and they while away the days drinking, smoking pot, and avoiding work. Ted became famous as the world's only known magical creature, but the public's attention is fickle and eventually he eases into a comfortable post-celebrity lifestyle as a stoner layabout.
As happens in these increasingly common arrested-development comedies, our childish hero is compelled to grow up by an inordinately sexy girl, in this case successful businesswoman Lori (Mila Kunis). She's tired of John being an ambitionless, broke goofball whose can't even bear the responsibility of his promotion to general manager of a rental-car company. Lori is convinced that Ted is a bad influence and insists the plush lush move out so that she and John can live like responsible adults. What begins as an amicable separation between the two best bros becomes a wedge that threatens to drive them apart forever, which has disastrous consequences when Ted's biggest fan (Giovanni Ribisi), a deranged nut with a pathological obsessions, decides he'll become Ted's new best pal by any means necessary.
Plot-wise, Ted is pretty unexceptional. It's your basic Adam Sandler-style story template that coasts along on the high-concept twist that the goofball best friend (who we might otherwise expect to be played by Nick Swardson, Allen Covert, or Rob Schneider) is a talking toy. Ted's laid-back post-celebrity personality is incidentally rather similar to Sandler's character from his summer movie, That's My Boy.
But MacFarlane's sensibilities are a bit more classy and self-aware, and his distinctive voice sets Ted apart from ostensibly similar fare. Like Family Guy, it's most effective as a joke-delivery system, but it's also not entirely a lark. There are semi-relatable characters here, and John's relationship with Ted has a surprising emotional undercurrent. That's not to say MacFarlane is taking himself too seriously-- the movie is still drenched in profanity and sarcasm-- but he shows a steady hand as a first-time director.
MacFarlane's facility with live-action remains somewhat in doubt, as most of the scenes without Ted are inert. On the flipside, Ted is a nicely realized, three-dimensional character, even if he is entirely computer-animated. The bald patches on his fur suggest the same hard living that has made him cynical and wise; he's far and away the movie's most fully realized and sympathetic creation. It's Wahlberg, overdoing it a bit as an immature lout, who winds up seeming the most cartoonish and unbelievable. But in the movie's best scenes, like the surprisingly intense fight sequence as the boys' relationship sinks to a new low, the line between cartoon and live action blurs almost completely.
It's a nifty trick MacFarlane pulls off, and it makes for one of the year's funniest movies. Ted is an accomplished comedic work that instantly makes its writer/director a filmmaker to watch.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.