What’s wrong with this picture? Mark Wahlberg

Boys will stay boys, bears are bears

The booger-flick of arrested male development is an early theme of summer 2012, with the likes of Adam Sandler (That’s My Boy) and Sacha Baron Coen (The Dictator) failing to grow up on camera and on cue.

Ted

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Rated 14A

Dark Horse

3 stars (out of 4)

Rated: 14A

The booger-flick of arrested male development is an early theme of summer 2012, with the likes of Adam Sandler (That’s My Boy) and Sacha Baron Coen (The Dictator) failing to grow up on camera and on cue.

Enter Ted and Dark Horse, two new films about boy-men that follow less predictable and more interesting paths on the unpaved road to adulthood.

The former is a crude comedy with a few serious notes; the latter is a bleak drama with comic and compassionate touches. Both have fantasy elements that transport us to different places, not always good ones.

Ted is one of the big multiplex contenders, and if you plan to see just one movie this year (or lifetime) about a trash-talking teddy bear, then it may just be your cup of honey. For others, beware the bear!

Mark Wahlberg’s likeable loser John grew up with a magically mouthy stuffed bear, voiced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who also makes his feature film debut here as writer and director.

A prologue that sounds like a fairy tale (until the profanity kicks in) presents a matter-of-fact situation where John’s talking-and-walking teddy (cleverly named Ted) is considered an astonishing miracle, until people get bored and move on to the next distraction.

Meanwhile, what’s a guy to do when he reaches 35, works as a Boston car-rental drone and still has a teddy bear, his furry BFF with a (dirty) mind of its own?

The two are opposites in more than the obvious ways. John gets tongue-tied and say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Ted has a mouth that a mama bear should have scrubbed with soap long ago.

John has a hot girlfriend named Lori (Mila Kunis) whom he’s starting to get serious about. Ted has a trashy blonde named Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), whom he sees when he’s not busy squiring hookers, four at a time.

Ted and John get along famously anyway, smoking weed, drinking beer and watching old Flash Gordon movie reruns on TV — until that day comes when John gets an un-bearable ultimatum from Lori.

The surprising thing about Ted isn’t the story, which includes a kidnapping subplot in which Giovanni Ribisi manages to be both creepy and a doofus at the same time.

Ted’s real trick is turning a one-joke premise into a reasonable facsimile of a movie, and one that isn’t entirely bent on grossing us out. MacFarlane laces his script with pop-cult zingers that fly like popcorn, including head-spinning references to Airplane!, The Simpsons, Pink Floyd and, yes, Family Guy that may have you struggling to keep up.

There’s also a lot of profanity, along with a few guilty chuckles and the most savage beating a stuffed animal has ever laid upon a human. But you may just wish the boys would pass the bong. Ted’s rough charms might be wasted on the seriously straight.

Todd Solondz certainly views the world from a rigid perspective, forever fixed upon the flat horizons of alienated suburbanites. This may explain why he’s lost considerable critical cachet since his indie-darling days of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Happiness (1998).

But with Dark Horse he deserves another look. Exploring his own version of a man-child, angry college dropout Abe (Jordan Gelber), he gets the closest he’s ever gotten to displaying genuine empathy with one of his characters.

It’s not an easy task. Narcissistic Abe fancies himself a gangsta, wearing his name on a gold chain, sporting a Matzo Ball’er T-shirt and riding around in a yellow Hummer. But the rotund recluse is more baby than badass. At 35, he still lives at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow), in a room filled with action figures he buys for absurd sums on eBay.

He has a job at his father’s New Jersey real-estate company, but he doesn’t work it. His tasks are secretly done by an older colleague (Mary Joy), out of motherly concern or cougar-like connivance.

Implausible as that latter scenario seems, things take a stranger turn when Abe turns his selfish gaze upon the clinically depressed Miranda (Selma Blair), a Sylvia Plath type caught in her own bell jar.

She makes an unexpected response to a blatant pitch from Abe, but then counters it with a personal revelation that forces him to start thinking like an adult, a very strange and scary situation for him.

As awful as Abe is, you can’t help rooting for him as he struggles to get his life in order, all while his vivid fantasy world seems to be closing in on him. The camera spins around the room, much like Abe’s thought processes.

How can you not feel for a guy who, upon bestowing a first kiss, is given the backhanded compliment, “Oh, my God, that wasn’t horrible!”

Even the bloodless Solondz must have felt a sympathetic shudder as he penned that line. Growing up is not for wimps.

Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.

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