by Steve Habrat
I may upset tons of people when I say this but I have never been the biggest fan of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, the wildly popular animated television series that relies heavily on making one random joke about pop culture after another to the point where I almost get sick to my stomach. I’ve always found the jokes lazy, with MacFarlane hoping you’ll giggle at all the randomness he fires at you at rapid speeds. He’s also gone on to create two other animated series that have almost identical set-ups (American Dad and The Cleveland Show), one worse the other. With the popularity of Family Guy, you knew MacFarlane would eventually make the jump to the big screen and now he has with the surprisingly funny and warmhearted Ted, the first good comedy of the 2012 summer. If you worry that Ted’s premise will wear itself out, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Focusing on a raggedy teddy bear that has magically sprung to life, Ted has a charm you just can’t resist, no matter how hard you try. This profane little party animal will also surprise you with his humility he demonstrates late in the game, something I was not expecting at all but ended up really getting into. Yet the magic of Ted comes from the way that MacFarlane manages to work his pop culture referencing gags into a live action film and for the first time, making it seem like there was some actual thought behind all those geeky references.
On Christmas day, 1985, young Boston outcast John Bennet (Played by Bretton Manley) makes a wish that the cuddly teddy bear he received Christmas morning would come to life and be his best friend forever. John wakes up the next day and realizes that his wish has come true. After horrifying his parents with his creepy new buddy, John and “Teddy” scamper off to conqueror the neighborhood. Teddy or Ted (Voiced by Seth MacFarlane), as he quickly becomes fond of, begins to catch the attention of the media and he rises to be a huge sensation across America. The fame fades and the years pass with Ted getting into trouble here and there. We soon come to present day where Ted and John (Played by Mark Wahlberg) are still shacking up together, living in a cloud of marijuana smoke and half-consumed beers. John works a dead end job at a car rental company that appears to be going nowhere fast but he still manages to get by. John is in a happy relationship with the sweet Lori (Played by Mila Kunis), who is forgiving of John’s loser lifestyle and beams at every moment they have together. Yet on their fourth anniversary, John fails to purpose to Lori, forcing her to demand that John pick her or Ted. John begins trying to grow up for Lori but the raucous Ted makes that a difficult task, especially when he gets his own apartment. Ted also finds himself harassed by a bizarre father (Played by Giovanni Ribisi) and his overweight son, who will stop at nothing to make Ted a part of their family.
It’s not hard to see what MacFarlane is saying with Ted, as he presents a man-child who just can’t let go of his teddy bear (or his free spirited youth, if we are going to identify the metaphor). Only when the man-child lets go of that teddy bear, will he truly be a man for his gushing gal pal. After some recently iffy starring roles, Wahlberg is back on track speaking through a thick Bahston accent and trading droll geek dialogue with the sexy Kunis, who couldn’t seem more at home here. The two work great together, making you wonder why nobody has tried pairing them up before. Every time you think John has finally gotten on the right track, in crashes the vulgar best buddy to rip him away from his adult responsibilities. Before separating, Ted and John would plant themselves on their sofa, rip bongs, and drone on and on about why Flash Gordon is the best movie ever made. When Ted gets his own place, things really spin wildly out of control into booze-filled blowouts that have them doing cocaine with one of their idols (I won’t spoil the surprise). Yet it was those little moments between John and Lori that forces some of the stuffing over in Ted and makes way for a human heart.
When we aren’t going “awwww” over John and Lori, you will be doubled over laughing over the slovenly title character as he curses his way into your heart. He ends up becoming a new pop culture icon himself! Ted is a skillfully illustrated little CGI creation that has been carefully fleshed out to make us never grow tired of his reckless, foul-mouthed behavior. Despite the fact he is a computer image, he really holds the screen, making us cease to see him as an expensive animation and view him more as a flesh and blood character. It helps that MacFarlane stuffs him with quite a bit of emotion that he smartly reveals at just the right time. When Ted realizes the damage he has done to John and Lori’s relationship, he goes above and beyond to really help his buddy out, actually realizing that he has been a horse’s ass and admitting it. This isn’t a fast one pulled by MacFarlane (thankfully). I kept waiting for Ted to revert back to being an asshole, and while he does in a way (he is more smartass than asshole), this character actually does undergo a major metamorphosis even before the final chase sequence is thrown in to for the hell of it.
Ted does come with a few rips and tears in his matted little body, mostly from the half-conceived weirdo father and his even bigger weirdo son, who are supposed to be the villains in all of this. Ribisi’s Donny is game to get freaky and he sure does in the final stretch, but Ted could have been a really great movie without his character being on board. His son does provide one of the film’s funnier one-liners but it doesn’t justify their inclusion. Without them, this comedy could have been fifteen minutes shorter and all the better for it. Community’s Joel McHale shows up as Lori’s frisky boss who constantly tries to impress her with all of his money. He quietly steals the show from everybody else and quite frankly, there wasn’t enough of him in the film. Ted also features a handful of other celebrity cameos that mirror MacFarlane’s fascination with random pop culture referencing. Don’t get me wrong, they are pretty clever and they will definitely catch you off guard. Another inspired decision by MacFarlane is having Patrick Stewart acting as the storybook narrator who goes off on a hilarious rant about how bad 2006’s Superman Returns was.
Another flaw that really bothered me in the opening half of Ted was the way that MacFarlane would undercut his own jokes. He would deliver a good one, think he was on a role, and then go too far with it, sucking the laughs right out of the moment. It happens a number of times near the beginning, sending Ted into a slight tailspin early on. Luckily, MacFarlane rebounds and the second half doesn’t have a dull moment. Overall, it is great to see MacFarlane showing a bit of range with Ted. After making millions off of rehashing the same material with slightly different characters, MacFarlane proves he could be a comedic force to reckon with on the big screen. He can do crass with the big boys and he can tell jokes until it hurts. If you were looking for another reason to see Ted, check it out for the chemistry between Kunis and Wahlberg, a pairing that I hope to see on the big screen again sometime. Even if you’re not a fan of MacFarlane’s television work, there is still much to enjoy in Ted. Plus, you have to give MacFarlane credit for producing a summer comedy that is worthy of the ten bucks you will spend on it.
by Steve Habrat
Perhaps my expectations were too high going in to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest shock comedy The Dictator, a political satire that doesn’t ever really go for the throat. I was hoping for a comedy on the level of 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Bruno, a film with jokes that really left a mark and left you saying “ouch.” With The Dictator, Cohen parodies such real life dictators as the late Kim Jong-il and Muammar Gaddafi, both who were constantly making news and creating a stir throughout the world. One would expect Cohen to have a ball riffing these two individuals and he clearly is having a good time parading around in a fake beard, but this offering seems to just go in circles for eighty minutes. I kept waiting for something to truly shock me and outside of a joke made about women attending college and a climatic rant that will have any liberal-minded audience member jumping up in applause, I was left unmoved by Cohen’s effort. There are still some chuckle worthy moments and some gross-outs that lean more toward gross rather than funny, all of which you’d expect from The Dictator but even still, it doesn’t wield as much power as it would like.
The Dictator introduces us to Admiral General Aladeen (Played by Cohen), the dictator of the North African Republic of Waydia. The Supreme Leader, as Aladeen is often called, loves to oppress his people, pay Hollywood movie stars to sleep with him, order executions on those who get on his bad side, and develop nuclear weapons. Upon making an announcement that leads the world to believe he possesses advanced nuclear weapons, the United Nations Security Council declares that they will intervene militarily unless he shuts the program down. Aladeen and his uncle, Tamir (Played by Ben Kingsley), decide to travel to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. Upon his arrival, Aladeen is kidnapped by a hired hitman, who shaves his iconic beard and then accidentally unleashes him on the streets of New York. Aladeen then finds himself replaced by a dimwitted double that will sign a document making Waydia a democracy. With the help of an activist named Zooey (Played by Anna Farris), Aladeen begins trying to stop the signing of the document and in the process, develops a soft spot for Zooey and democracy.
At a brief eighty-three minutes, The Dictator doesn’t linger long enough to become too outrageous. Throughout those eighty-three minutes, it seemed like the nervous studio was holding Cohen back from really finding a groove. I can remember seeing Bruno for the first time and just feeling the air getting sucked out of the packed theater while multiple disgusted audience members bolted for the door. It appears that Paramount was determined to not let something like that happen with The Dictator. I wish that they had let Cohen go and do his wild and crazy thing, which would have helped the film out immensely. It should be noted that The Dictator is also structured like a normal Hollywood movie rather than the hidden camera footage of Cohen messing with real American citizens. Even the subject matter itself, which plays with our fear of terrorism in this post 9/11 world, seems to be a bit dated and almost cheap, like Cohen could have come up with something better to hit us over the head with.
As far as Cohen’s performance is concerned, he is immersed in this character 110%. He ad-libs with the best and he does think up a few stinging zingers, mostly the one about women attending college that really pissed off one girl in my showing. Oh, and he does deliver a good one about Dick Cheney that had me in stitches. For the first time, Cohen seems a bit too eager to make us gag over making us think, something that was put first in both Borat and Bruno. I liked it when Cohen really put himself in danger to make us laugh (Remember the rodeo sequence in Borat?), but also to show us the ugly sides of America, the ones we hear about but rarely ever see. Here it is all about defecating off of a building, masturbating, and yes, putting a cell phone in a woman’s vagina (you read that correctly). He also goes for easy and juvenile jokes, ones that Adam Sandler would settle for on what he perceived as one of his good days. Yet Cohen is as magnetic as always and he does make us feel for this lonely, lonely dictator.
As far as the rest of the performers are concerned, Ben Kingsley has little to do besides stand next to Cohen and mutter lines to side characters and John C. Riley shows up briefly as the hitman hired to kill Aladeen. Riley delivers some of the best lines The Dictator has to offer and then he is gone in a flash. Cohen, on the other hand, works well with Anna Farris, who plays things straighter than I imagined she would. She usually can’t resist taking a violent turn into wackoville but with The Dictator, she keeps things nice and liberally normal. Jason Mantzoukas shows up as a nuclear weapons developer Nadal, who Aladeen had thought he had executed. It should be said that Cohen and Mantzoukas have little comedic chemistry and have a hard time playing off each other. Sadly, they only briefly click.
For a film that could have had so much bite, The Dictator rarely ever bears its fangs. Instead, it gets hung up on body fluids and jokes about terrorists, throwaway jokes that I never thought I’d see Cohen fall back on. Yet I did enjoy parts of The Dictator and thought certain moments of it were really clever. A pair of political analysts who pick apart public appearances by Aladeen and his advisors are an absolutely hysterical riff on the ones we see on television, the ones who find so much in so little. Overall, I can say that while I am disappointed in this paint-by-numbers studio comedy, it was still a good time for a crass laugh or three. Yet I was left wishing that Cohen had raised the bar, been more offensive, and pushed the envelope just a little bit further. When it comes to his trio of mainstream comedies, The Dictator is the runt compared to the rough and tough Borat and Bruno. Oh well, at least the runt is kind of sweet and cute despite all the urine and seaman.