Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

17 January 2013

Teddy Bears and Fantasies

Ted is an interesting little movie, although I think it is more interesting to talk about than it is to watch. I must confess to not liking Seth MacFarlane's debut film very much.

Now, I know Ted is a nostalgic fantasy movie that is more than a little preoccupied with the 1980s and what it means to have grown up in that decade, and I know that because of this I probably should have liked the movie, but the truth is, I just didn't believe it.

But there's a talking teddy bear that has come to life, you'll say, you'd have to be crazy to believe it. The thing, however, that I didn't believe is that Mila Kunis could ever have spent four years – and want to spend any more – with a guy like the main character in this movie (played, with his usual, admirable pluck, by Mark Wahlberg).

But honestly. This is a completely predictable movie about a grown man who refuses to be an adult. In case you've missed all of them, this is also the subject of each and every one of Judd Apatow's movies, and numerous other films – the Zac Efron vehicle 17 Again comes instantly to mind. The thing that is different about Ted is that instead of the usual bevy of friends who are bad influences (often played by Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, etc.) Wahlberg's John Bennett has only one bad-influence amigo and that's his childhood teddy bear, who has come magically to life, smokes a lot of pot, throws an amazing party, knows a ton of celebrities, and has sex with hookers.

What Ted is really about is the nostalgia that men in their thirties feel for having had to give up all of this fun in order to have a job, pay the rent, keep their girlfriends happy, and stay out of county lock-up. Ted traffics in the destruction of all of these societal rules. Instead of being the responsible adult his girlfriend wishes him to be, John screws up again and again, and all because of Teddy. Teddy (it's a little obvious, so forgive me) is a symbol for this inner adolescent that John's girlfriend is asking him to give up.

But that's not how Ted is framed. Instead, the filmmakers treat the image of a man giving up on adolescence as equivalent to a man being forced to give up his best friend. The girlfriend is asking him to do something that really ought not to be done. She is asking him to choose between his best friend and her. It's a win-lose situation, and in typical bros-before-hoes fashion, John chooses his friend (and his fun) over the girl he loves.

Ted is a romantic comedy, however, and of the most sentimental variety. So in the end, John gets both his friend and the girl. The girlfriend decides that actually she loves him because of his childishness, his indecision, and his lack of ambition and not in spite of those qualities. She decides she'd rather have him, warts and all, than be without him. And this is the part of the tale I just couldn't buy. It's fine for grown men to wax nostalgic about the childhoods they gave up when they got their day-jobs; it's fine for us to miss the good old days when we could sleep until eleven and then wake up and smoke pot and play video games for the rest of the day; I also think it's fine (admirable even) to attempt to relive those glory days of youth – be that by taking long vacations with lots of drinking or by quitting those day-jobs and going off to live a life off the grid.

But you can't also expect to get the girl.

To give John the girl at the end is a fantasy I just can't believe in the least. You can wish to relive your college years but you can't also wish to have a beautiful grown woman with a career on your arm while you do it. Pardon me, but grow up.

One last thing: Giovanni Ribisi is in this movie and he's great. The film thinks of him primarily as a kind of cartoon character, but Ribisi fleshes him out and makes him into a total weirdo. I loved him.