There are moments in Seth MacFarlane's new comedy Ted so flagrantly vulgar -- bits involving parsnips and hand lotion and human excrement (though thankfully not all together) -- that you are inevitably reminded of John Waters, the maestro of bad taste who held up a fun-house mirror to America in the 1970s and '80s, in movies like Pink Flamingos and Polyester, showing us that we are not nearly so upstanding as we would like to pretend.
But then you remember that Waters never came up with anything like the title character in Ted, a pot-smoking, four-letter-word spewing, anthropomorphic teddy bear who also happens to have a mean right hook. Ted is a symphony of the crass. Pity the pour soul who wanders into this movie unawares. (At the end of the screening I attended, I saw two women wearing expressions of relieved terror -- like they had just survived a carjacking.) Everyone else, though, gets to relish the most sustained, deliciously weird assault on middle-class American values since the original Jackass.
As devoted fans already know, MacFarlane is the creator of the cult-hit animated sitcom Family Guy, and Ted hews almost exactly to the model of that show: There are inexplicable non sequiturs and chockablock pop-culture references; at the center of the story is a presumably nonverbal figure -- a dog on Family Guy, a child's toy here -- whose ability to talk like a 40-year-old man doesn't seem to faze anyone. In stretching out the conceit of a 30-minute show to 106-minute movie, Ted sometimes feels strained; many of the scattershot gags miss the mark or come off as unnecessarily mean-spirited. But MacFarlane's larger achievement is undeniable: He has invented a pop surrealist storytelling style that is unlike anything else coming out of Hollywood right now.
In a prologue, narrated with mock sincerity by Patrick Stewart, we learn the story of John Bennett (played by Bretton Manley as a boy), who one Christmas night wished that his new teddy bear would come to life so they could be best friends forever. The next morning, Ted is walking and cheerfully talking. Within weeks, he is on the covers of magazines, a bona-fide celebrity. Flash-forward 25 years or so, though, and Ted has been forgotten by the public. He is still best buddies with the now-adult, rudderless John (Mark Wahlberg), but they live together in a state of arrested adolescence, as John's girlfriend (Mila Kunis) looks on in frustration.
The biggest knock to be made against Ted is that the central conflict (The screenplay is by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) feels familiar: Like The Hangover or the collected works of Adam Sandler, this is another "taming of the man-child" comedy that indulges its characters' most juvenile fantasies before setting them on the righteous path.
Yet, whereas a fundamental conservativism animates movies like The Hangover -- the men are basically taught a lesson to never stray too far from their wives and girlfriends -- Ted pushes into more extreme territory. At various points, Ted hires a group of hookers and plays a scatologically themed game of Truth or Dare; he has sex with one of his co-workers at a grocery store; and he whips John's bare behind with a TV antenna. Each time you think MacFarlane has reached the limit of transgressions for a mainstream Hollywood movie, he serves up a scene like the one that finds the teddy bear jacked-up on cocaine, performing karaoke to Hootie and the Blowfish's Only Wanna Be With You.
Is Ted just a bunch of shock for shock's sake? Perhaps, but shock has its place in cultural history. Waters' movies functioned as a kind of call-to-arms; they asserted a place within the blandness of Apple Pie America for the freaks and the outcasts. Ted doesn't quite have as coherent a vision -- the villains in Waters' films were right-wing, censorious prigs. The villains here are a standard-issue corporate toady (Joel McHale) and a twitching sociopath (Giovanni Ribisi). But there's no mistaking the angry satire that underlies the film: MacFarlane gleefully mocks our obsession with celebrity (Norah Jones, Ryan Reynolds and Tom Skerritt make extremely strange cameos), and our politically correct anxieties when it comes to talking about race and sexuality. In his vision, only a crude talking toy can show us how stupidly the rest of us are behaving.
That puppet is a feat of technical artistry, brilliantly integrated into the live action. The actors, especially Wahlberg (who at one point engages in a brutal, bloody hotel-room fight with Ted), work wonders to make you believe this pint-sized toy is actually alive. Kunis, lovely as she is, isn't given nearly enough to do -- a common refrain in the man-child genre. Ted's voice, meanwhile, is provided by MacFarlane himself, tossing off observations so outlandishly filthy that you instantly start giggling. This movie wins no points for subtlety, and that's exactly what makes it so special.