By Michael Phillips 2014-12-19

Tribune Newspapers Critic

2 stars

Like "The Hangover" and its sequel, "Ted" is a bully of a comedy but a bully with just enough calculated heart to make it a hit. It plays like a movie tryout for a TV series, specifically a Seth MacFarlane series, which means a high quotient of startlingly crude ethnic and cultural stereotypes leavened by a sincere appreciation for American popular music of another era.

The movie's soundtrack promises old-time sentiment and heartfelt pathos, with a little swing. The jokes, meantime, depend on how many R-rated synonyms there are for a woman's vagina, as spoken by a plush toy.

As a boy, young John grows up in a Boston suburb where beating up Jews for Christmas is an annual pastime. (Compare this joke to the one at the beginning of "Borat." One is dubious; the other one, in "Borat," is inspired.) John wishes upon a star for a friend to call his own. His teddy bear becomes a talking teddy bear. The bear, Ted, enjoys some fame (appearing on Carson), John grows up into Mark Wahlberg, the pair remain best pals and bong-devoted couch potatoes well into John's arrested-development adulthood.

"Ted" concerns what John must do to earn the respect and devotion of his longtime public relations exec girlfriend, played by Mila Kunis, while still keeping disreputable, trash-talking, skank-chasing Ted in his life.

This is MacFarlane's feature debut as a director, and he co-wrote the script as well as producing and providing the voice of Ted. Ted sounds so much like Peter Griffin in MacFarlane's long-running Fox animated series "Family Guy," the script is shamed into referring to the resemblance. You can find this clever, or you can find it lazy, and this is why MacFarlane is the biggest mixed blessing in contemporary TV comedy: He is both.

The bits I like in "Ted" are not the bits such as the staggeringly brutal brawl between Ted and John, or anything involving Ted's sociopathic kidnappers. I do like MacFarlane's obsessive devotion to the 1980 film version of "Flash Gordon" starring Sam J. Jones, who plays himself in "Ted" for reasons that ... well, who cares. Like "Family Guy," "Ted" is only about its own hyperlinked pop culture references. There's one scene in which Wahlberg does a parody of Robert Hays in "Airplane!" doing a parody of John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" and while it earns points for nerve, nerve isn't everything in comedy. Plenty of people took their preteen kids to a recent downtown Chicago preview screening of "Ted," which was great, just as it was great to hear one of those nervous and disoriented preteens screaming Ted's nickname for vagina over and over and over, all the way down Illinois Street.

MPAA rating: R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug use).

Running time: 1:45.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (John Bennett); Mila Kunis (Lori Collins); Seth MacFarlane (voice of Ted).

Credits: Directed by Seth MacFarlane, written by Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, story by MacFarlane; produced by MacFarlane, Wild, Jason Clark, John Jacobs and Scott Stuber. A Universal Pictures release.

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