Mark Wahlberg plays a man whose best friend is a talking teddy bear in "Ted." (Universal Pictures / Tippett…)
Someday when a diabolical alien species from a faraway galaxy has taken control of our planet, our evil bug-eyed rulers will occasionally find themselves pondering the oddities of early 21st century American civilization.
Why, for example, were so many earthlings infatuated with Charlie Sheen? How did a baseball team called the Chicago Cubs manage to lose so many games? And most puzzling of all, why were 21st century moviegoers so eager to see dozens upon dozens of comedies populated with vulgar, wise-cracking, weed-smoking, underachieving man-children whose entire lives seemed to revolve around a misty-eyed nostalgia for '80s TV shows, movies and big-haired rock bands?
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 05, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Man-child comedies: A column in the July 3 Calendar section about comedy films centered on immature male characters misspelled the title of the movie "Shaun of the Dead" as "Sean of the Dead."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, July 07, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
"Ted": In the July 3 Calendar section, the Big Picture column about the film "Ted" said that the character played by Mark Wahlberg and his teddy bear pal enjoy watching old episodes of "Flash Gordon," an '80s sci-fi TV series. "Flash Gordon" was a 1980 feature film, not a TV series.
If you went to the multiplex this week, you may have noticed the endless lines for "Ted," the latest comedy grounded in arrested male development. Co-written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, the comedy wizard behind the marvelously funny TV show "Family Guy," "Ted" opened with a dazzling $54.1 million this weekend, one of the best openings ever for an R-rated comedy. Universal Pictures, which is distributing "Ted," believes the film could end up earning as much as $200 million in the U.S. alone.
In case you haven't seen the film's ubiquitous trailer, "Ted" is the story of a 35-year-old guy (Mark Wahlberg) who is still such a child that his closest friend -- in fact, his only friend -- is a boorish, trash-talking teddy bear named Ted who makes Adam Sandler look like Dame Judi Dench.
"Ted" has lots of company: In recent years, the best-loved character in American comedy has been the man-child, the hero of a wide variety of comedy hits, including "Old School," "Wedding Crashers," "Knocked Up," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Dodgeball," "Step Brothers," "Role Models," "Sean of the Dead" and "21 Jump Street."
A host of actors, starting with Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Seann William Scott, have made entire careers out of playing grown-up guys who behave like horny junior high-schoolers. Wahlberg continues this de-evolution in American masculinity in "Ted." Even though he has a long-suffering girlfriend, played by Mila Kunis, Wahlberg's character is happiest when he's hanging out with Ted, taking hits off a bong and watching old episodes of "Flash Gordon," their favorite '80s sci-fi TV series.
Like most of the women in man-child comedies, Kunis is basically a hood ornament. She is her boyfriend's second favorite toy, someone to have occasional sex with and who, since she has a serious job, clearly contributes more than her fair share to the rent. Her main job is to give the film its dramatic conflict, since she is the one who forces the issue by delivering an ultimatum: It's me or the teddy bear. Kunis' place in his universe is best exemplified by the fact that when she phones Wahlberg, we discover that he's given her a personalized ringtone: the Darth Vader theme from "Star Wars."
Why do these films resonate so deeply in our culture?
It's worth noting that they are not just a guy thing -- the Judd Apatow-produced comedies that virtually define the man-child genre regularly attract audiences with more women than men. In the case of "Ted," 44% of attendees were women, even though the studio initially aimed its marketing at young men. The film even played to married couples: When the studio asked opening-weekend filmgoers whom they came to the movie with, nearly twice as many people said they came with a spouse than with a date.
If I were a sociologist, I'd probably point the finger for the popularity of arrested male adolescence at the usual villains: helicopter parenting, the rise of feminism, video games and a cruddy economy that has a larger percentage of 25-34 males living with their parents than ever before.
And of course, these films are arising from a male-dominated Hollywood ecosystem. Almost without exception, the films are written by men, directed by men and feature stories revolving around male stars. But in Hollywood, men have always run the show, so there's really nothing new there.
If you look at the history of the movies, though, you see things in a different light. Comedy has always been dominated by characters who refused to embrace maturity. In fact, by its very nature, comedy is an art form crammed with mischief and inherently suspicious of the cloak of adult responsibilities. Of the silent comics, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon and especially Stan Laurel engaged their audiences by reverting to all sorts of childlike behavior.
In the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, the male stars frequently played the straight part while peerless actresses like Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert, full of giddy irresponsibility, took center stage, creating mayhem by playing madcap heiresses and ditzy dames. Lucille Ball kept this tradition alive in her immensely popular 1950s TV show, "I Love Lucy," whose comedy style was grounded in the daffy, slapstick antics of the silent clowns.