March 13 2013 12:00 AM

The wicked wit of Seth MacFarlane turns 'Ted' into a comedy with sharp claws


“Ted” begins with a lonely young boy’s magical holiday wish for a special friend being granted. “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Mom declares as the child’s teddy bear comes to life. But don’t believe for a moment that “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane — who directed, produced, co-wrote and provided the voice for the title character — has suddenly turned sentimental and sweet-natured. The kid grows up to be John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a 35-year-old Bostonian stoner, and his best buddy, Ted, matures into a tyrant of a toy, a foul-mouthed, drug-craving, hooker-hiring ne’er-do-well; Winnie the Pooh would wince.

On the other hand, MacFarlane fans won’t disapprove at all. “Ted” revels in bad taste, nasty gross-out gags, vicious jabs at celebrities and has-beens (among those skewered: Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Corey Feldman, Rita Coolidge and Sinead O'Connor) and every kind of political incorrectness imaginable. At one point, Norah Jones makes a cameo appearance and is labeled “half-Muslim” by the tart-tongued Ted. Jones politely notes that’s she’s actually half-Indian, but Ted can’t be bothered to apologize. “Whatever,” he grunts. “Thanks for 9/11.”

Although shocking audiences isn’t as easy as it used to be, MacFarlane demonstrates he’s more than capable of making viewers simultaneously gasp and giggle. Honestly, what other reaction could you have at the sight of a bare-bottomed Wahlberg being whipped with a radio antenna by a furious stuffed animal? And the sequence involving Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” — there’s premium fuel for nightmares.

When it comes to actually directing, MacFarlane is still finding his way. His timing is not always on the mark, and “Ted” has several not-quite-there scenes that could easily been set aside as DVD extras. It’s also slightly unforgivable to hire a wonderful, sprightly comic actress like Mila Kunis as the leading lady and then give her nothing to do, aside from frequently rolling her eyes and whining about Ted being a bad influence on John.

When the movie clicks, however, it’s extremely (and bitterly) funny. Contrasting the corrosive comedy with a twinkly Walter Murphy score that sounds like it was stolen from a 1970s Goldie Hawn vehicle is a masterful move, and a subplot involving Giovanni Ribisi and Aedin Mincks as a genuinely disturbing father/son team plays out almost like the Disney version of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Wahlberg has a blast as the hapless hero, who wants to be a mature, responsible type and yet finds it hard to resist Ted’s temptations. Joel McHale is also deliciously smarmy as John’s rival.

In the end, it’s rather astonishing that MacFarlane managed to make what could have been a dangerously thin concept into a merrily mean-spirited farce that holds on to its salty sense of humor right up until the end credits. You will either find "Ted" terribly amusing or just plain terrible, but either way there's no denying that MacFarlane takes his dirty jokes very seriously.