Has anyone ever gotten more mileage out of a RISD student film than Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane? It was all there in 1995's "Life of Larry" — the dopey dad and his talking dog, the TV parodies, the equal-opportunity offensiveness, the preoccupation with celebrity and passing wind. The dog would evolve into MacFarlane's finest creation: Family Guy's Brian, a dyspeptic anti-Snoopy who doesn't so much comfort dopey dad Peter Griffin as tell him the truth. Seventeen years later, MacFarlane is making his big-screen debut with yet another dope and his talking teddy bear. But whereas Brian is well read and depressive, Ted is a character overly familiar in current Hollywood comedies— the vulgar, boorish buddy who keeps the manchild protagonist in a comfortable state of arrested development.
Mark Wahlberg plays the manchild, a Boston rental-car agent and committed stoner who as a boy wished on a shooting star that his teddy bear could talk. The talking bear became a celebrity, but the fickle public moved on; John grew up but refuses to give up the now dissipated, foul-mouthed Ted. After one of Ted's friends leaves a pile of excrement on the carpet, John's long-suffering girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis, who voices the daughter on Family Guy) insists that Ted move out.
Ted moves into a fleabag apartment and takes a job as a supermarket checker. Women find him irresistible, even though he isn't anatomically correct. None of this is any more ridiculous than being asked to believe that Lori, a sleek PR associate with a generously sized Back Bay apartment, would allow a loser like John, who at 35 is still afraid of thunder, to sponge off her, much less put up with John and Ted's wake-and-bake routine. It's hard to figure out what she sees in him, other than the fact that he looks like Marky Mark. But then Kunis already played this part in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
The screenplay, written by MacFarlane with Family Guy writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, provides other threats to the John-Ted-Lori triangle in Lori's smarmy and fabulously wealthy boss (Joel McHale), who's determined to get her for himself, and a creepy father (Giovanni Ribisi) who wants Ted, ostensibly for his chubby, sadistic son (Aedin Mincks).
For a movie starring a CG character who looks amusing wearing pants, Ted fares better than last year's alien comedy Paul, thanks in part to MacFarlane's considerable skill as a voice actor; he pitches Ted's voice in a register between Brian and Peter Griffin and funnels it through Cliff Clavin, and his comic timing is unerring. Ted has more solid laughs than one would expect, and it's interesting to see how MacFarlane works in his pop-cultural digressions within the less flexible form of commercial cinema (although its Saturday Night Fever parody is shamelessly stolen from that ur-text of pop-cultural digression, Airplane!).
Celebrity gossip is the Family Guy writers' crutch, but Ted's two extended cameos are truly inspired. And there's a certain catharsis in seeing Wahlberg get the stuffing beaten out of him by a toy bear, particularly — if we're going to play MacFarlane's game — in the light of Wahlberg's recent comments about what he would have done to the hijackers had he been on one of their planes on 9/11.
But Ted, which was conceived as an animated series, suffers the flaws of Family Guy without sharing its strangeness. On television, Family Guy is a politically incorrect Simpsons, but at the movies, bad-boy, gross-out comedies are the mainstream. And it's hard for a movie to urge its protagonist to grow up when it is itself enamored of fart jokes.