Friday, November 2, 2012

The Cinema File #11: "Ted" Review

Yeah, I'm not really a Family Guy...guy.

Okay, that's probably an understatement. It seems like every time I happen to catch an episode of the show (usually because I forget to turn the autoplay off on Hulu after The Simpsons and I'm too lazy to get up), my opinion vacillates between slight distaste to vehement dislike. It's not that it can't ever be funny, it's just that too often it seems like instead of trying just a little bit harder to find something funny out of a given situation, the writers seem to think simply substituting something crass, esoteric, or annoying is just as good. And even when it is funny, to my mind it's always felt like something was missing, an absence of some ineffable quality that made any enjoyment I might derive from it hollow somehow. I just watched Seth McFarlane's first movie, Ted, and I think I now realize what that missing something is.

The story follows a man and his life long best friend, a talking bear named Ted, brought to life by a childhood wish, and kept alive long past the point where anyone finds that shit cute anymore. Now the boy is an adult and the bear has grown up mentally, while remaining the same physically, developing the personality and voice of a slightly less caustic Peter Griffin. I try not to gear up to hate a movie, but I have to admit, it was hard for me not to come into this one expecting the worst. The set-up, while interesting in the abstract, felt like the perfect opportunity for McFarlane to indulge in his least healthy impulses, laying on lazy "it's funny cause a teddy bear's doing it" jokes whether you found any of them funny or not. Best case scenario, I thought it would be what I imagine a Family Guy cut away about Teddy Ruxpin would be like if you stretched it out for two hours. Thankfully, my doubts were very quickly assuaged.

The thing that Ted has that every episode of Family Guy I've ever seen lacks is (forgive the schmaltz)...heart. The brand of humor is not all that different from a typical Family Guy episode save for the greater degree of focus on the story without the reliance on cut aways to pad out the action, but the difference is, the movie format allows McFarlane to take his time, let his story breathe, and actually get you to like his characters before unleashing the random pop culture references and vulgarity that might otherwise turn you away. None of the Griffin family are characters in the strictest sense. They are merely frameworks to hang jokes on. They can never do anything out of character, because they are whatever the writers want them to be at that moment. Ted is a character, you grow with him throughout the movie as he grows as a character throughout the movie, and because you were given the chance to feel for him, the humor is not manufactured and empty, but rather organic and gratifying.

I mentioned The Simpsons before, and I think the reason we used to love The Simpsons and now don't so much is exactly because of this distinction. The Simpson family used to be like real people, part of our family, and we cared about them because we could relate to them. We could suspend our disbelief that they were just cartoon characters and feel for them. Then little by little as the years wore on, this became less so. It would start with something small, a break of the fourth wall, a few out of character moments here or there. Maybe Homer would go on a tirade about some pop culture phenomenon and you just knew that this was just some writer's pet peeve that he wanted to vocalize through Homer. And eventually, all of their unique individual voices were taken away, and they were just mouthpieces for any joke that fit, their soul dimmed from misuse. Family Guy started where The Simpsons died, building a house out of its rotted carcass (metaphorically speaking of course). Ted starts fresh, and as a result, the movie, and all of us, are better for it.

If I had one major criticism, it is that the live actors all pale in comparison to the CGI star of the movie. I've never been the biggest Mark Walberg fan, though in his defense, a lot of that might just be residual hurt feelings over The Happening, and the fact that The Other Guys sucked giant donkey balls. And again, that was Will Ferrell, I don't know if I can blame Walberg for any of that. Anyway, qualifications aside, this didn't change my opinion of him much, though maybe helped a little on the margins (if nothing else, for his ability to rattle off white trash hoe names with such dexterity). Mila Kunis has always been someone who I've found very funny when given the right material, but here she is pretty much consigned to unfunny object of main character's affection. You'd think of all people, MacFarlane would understand her potential and utilize it more fully than is displayed here. And ever since My Name Is Earl, I've always had a soft spot for Giovanni Ribisi, but here he's just...weird. Yes, I know that's the intent, but his subplot never really came together for me in a satisfying way, and while I understand the need for an exciting dramatic conclusion and a tragic fake out in this kind of movie, I wonder if it would have been better served relying more on the other minor antagonist in Joel McHale to provide that tension.

Overall, I'd say if you haven't seen Ted yet (and chances are you probably have considering its box office), I would very easily recommend it. If you're hesitant, because like me you haven't been thrilled by the writer/director's output in the past, give it a shot. It will be easy for many Family Guy haters (such as myself), to dismiss this movie and try to deny the obvious leap forward in quality and emotional resonance, if only to maintain some semblance of cynical credibility. I said you are given the chance to care about these characters, but you have to take it on yourself. You have to accept the possibility that you can like a Seth McFarlane movie, and if you can do that, the rest comes naturally. For my part, call this hater swayed. It's more than just a bear doing stuff that is wacky by virtue of the fact that a bear is doing it. It's that, but with a lot more depth, warmth, and tenderness.

Insert Care Bears Joke Here.

For more reviews in The Cinema File, CLICK HERE

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