Imagine Seth MacFarlane, late at night, banging the deskspace next to his laptop – the real him, not the smiling, media friendly celebrity we’ve come to know. He’s on deadline to return notes for the script of his feature film, to be his feature directorial debut. In an oft-feared version of the Hollywood nightmare, he’s been instructed to sell out, to force his irreverent comedy into a traditional structure. Add a love interest – he grudgingly obliges. Plot needs a threat – something to build into a final climax. MacFarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy and a wealth of cultural material, starts brainstorming. Not surprisingly, he comes to Office Space, a directorial debut by another animation sensation, Mike Judge. If there’s any lesson to take from this film, in spite of its strengths, it’s that irreverent comedy shouldn’t fall back on sappy romantic subplots. Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) lives a form of hell delectable to the viewer, with a demon masked as a slow talking boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), and fellow sufferer, the mumbling Milton. Enter sitcom star Jennifer Aniston, as Joanna, a not-so-believable chain-restaurant server. The narrative dies when “couple” Livingston and Aniston share the screen. The same kind of feeling comes to Ted whenever the central boyfriend-girlfriend (Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis) are the focus, which takes up more runtime than the romance of the earlier film.
I’d like to imagine MacFarlane forced into such a pickle, though the wrong turn may have been his own doing – or maybe the work of his co-writers. Perhaps the madcap style of his series couldn’t maintain feature length. Such irreverence comes easier in his recent appearances as host – and impressively, a standout – on Comedy Central’s Celebrity Roasts. In Ted, MacFarlane has crafted a device to let his joking id run wild: a teddy bear wished to life by its owner, the two having grown to 30-something slackerdom together. The premise allows McFarlane to set up numerous gags, in which the furry little bear proves, just like MacFarlane’s cute-looking animated characters on TV, to be devious at every turn. Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) is, obviously, the id of his counterpart, Wahlberg’s John Bennett. The setup brings the project to the high-concept-friendly style of the fish-out-of-water tale. Such an “id” would assert, as this story does, that John leave a girlfriend obligation to see their childhood hero. And kudos go to MacFarlane for selecting the most embarrassing (even to an ultra-geek) presence of the Lucas/Spielberg age: the title role of 1980’s Flash Gordon, that wreck of cheesy props and line readings.
The gags have power to find Office Space‘s kind of irreverence, if only better balanced with the screenwriting crutches. Kunis, who was underused in Mike Judge’s Extract, is wasted here in a cutout role. She shows more humor in a few scenes of Black Swan than in this entire comedy, since the script slows to soap opera pace whenever she appears. Likely MacFarlane’s charm – or perhaps the sizable budget, and her share of it – convinced this talent to show up for a sleepwalk. When a creepy Giovanni Ribisi appears early on, he’s an obvious setup with producers’ notes stuck all over him. I’m sure MacFarlane fans will argue the character to be an ironic delivery device for a payoff scene, a window into his goofball nature (it involves the airiest of 80s pop via the 60s, and Ribisi at his goofiest).
Walhberg, with his grasp of juvenile adrenaline and frustration, suits his role. A former youth star himself (as a caricature in pop music), he channels the exuberance of a manchild who can’t repress his kiddie urges. John’s job at a car rental service is a slacker repository, with Patrick Warburton as a confused clerk, essentially a segue for a doozy of a cameo by Ryan Reynolds, the star of the triumphant experiment Buried proving tough-skinned and disarming here, too. A lot of comic effort is smothered in conventional wrapping.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Film is forthcoming with McFarland.