We were discussing The Maltese Falcon and the work of Dashiell Hammett and the nuances of hard-boiled crime fiction, and I clearly remember these words my teacher spoke: “Any good story has to suspend your disbelief.”
It was a high school creative writing course, and I don’t particularly remember the context in which my teacher uttered that sentence. Based on the origin of the phrase and the bluntness of the book we were discussing, I’m lead to believe he mentioned it in passing and not in direct relation to The Maltese Falcon. But nonetheless, those words lodged into a corner of my reading brain and have remained there ever since. I can’t tell you why.
I just know that in a Hammett novel or an Eastwood film or a piece of narrative nonfiction journalism, suspension of disbelief matters. That phrase matters in all forms of storytelling, I think. “Any good story has to suspend your disbelief.” I can still hear that.
I thought of that phrase recently when I saw the movie “Ted,” Seth MacFarlane’s crude tale of a promiscuous and vulgar and brash teddy bear, Ted, and his lifelong friend John Bennett. Yes, it’s as stupid and as funny as it sounds, and I don’t really know what to make of the fact that I’m thinking three levels deep about a film that is driven by the whims and desires of a stoned teddy bear. But, to me, there are two different levels of suspension of disbelief in “Ted,” one that makes it a 105-minute escape to a cheap and raunchy comedic getaway, and one that gives the film a backbone, a substance, a human interest soul.
To enjoy “Ted,” you first have to make the very real mental effort of unflinchingly accepting forms of human interaction between a grown man and a stuffed animal. The story begins with a young John Bennett, a lonely kid who couldn’t make friends, receiving a teddy bear for Christmas. When he goes to sleep, he makes a Christmas wish: He wishes his teddy bear were alive so they could be best friends, or “thunder buddies.” You won’t believe this, but John’s wish comes true. The film flashes forward to a 35-year-old John living with his beautiful girlfriend Lori – played by Mila Kunis – and Ted.
Let’s pause here. We’re not even 10 minutes into the film, and “Ted” is testing your suspension of disbelief. 1) Is it plausible that a grown man would be best friends with a teddy bear, live with him, drink with him, share a weed dealer with him? 2) Is it plausible that the man acutely described in the previous sentences would ever have a girlfriend, let alone one as attractive as Mila Kunis? I’m going to take wild guesses: 1) No. 2) Hell no.
Most of us would be much too cynical to lend our imaginations to premises of such preposterousness, but that’s the thing about “Ted.” We do. And it doesn’t take much. My favorite Level One Suspension of Disbelief test: In the middle of the film, John and Lori go out for an anniversary dinner and return home to their Boston apartment to find Ted sitting on the couch flanked by four hookers. Beer bottles litter the living room, marijuana smoke clouds the air, and a big dump sits in the corner of the room on the hardwood floor. One of the hookers dropped it there on a dare. Please read that again. OK, now in shorthand: Teddy bear, house party, four hookers, a steaming deuce, she did it.
You can laugh, it’s OK. It’s so incredibly and undeniably insane that we subconsciously surrender. OK, yeah, we got it MacFarlane, you’re crazy, this is crazy, we’re good with it. What’s next? And viewed in this fashion, “Ted” is an incredibly funny movie. It’s not for those with light senses for humor. It will upset a few select groups. And goodness, please don’t bring your children.
But then the plot takes a turn, a turn to Level Two Suspension of Disbelief, and the film demands your heart in addition to your attention. The party – the one where the hooker crapped on the floor! – drives Lori to tell John that Ted needs to go. He needs to move out and get a job if John wants their relationship to last. So Ted does. He gets his own apartment, he applies for a job at a grocery story that he tries his hardest not to get by making a sexual joke about the store manager’s wife. He gets hired.
After an impromptu party at Ted’s apartment leads to Lori dumping John, a stake is driven through the middle of John’s and Ted’s friendship. Ted is the friend with a big heart who can’t stay in his own lane; he impedes on personal space that’s not his. John is the irresponsible boyfriend who put himself in a position where he must choose between a friend and a lover. He blames Ted for his personal failures. As the two part ways, we begin to view Ted with human qualities. We empathize with his pain, we share his desperation, we feel his despair. And I remind myself, this is a … stuffed … animal.
It doesn’t matter. By now, we have been hooked by the plot, engulfed in John’s struggle to balance his devotion to friendship and his commitment to Lori and his wish to be more productive at work and his immaturity that is tarnishing all. We rationalize all of this, like it’s some difficult life decision. Like we’re not watching 35-year-old John converse with a toy.
At the end of the story, both levels of suspension of disbelief are pulled together when Ted tries to escape kidnappers. Trying to flee capture, Ted ends up climbing a light tower at Fenway Park – hey, remember, you need to suspend your disbelief! – as his capturer moves in after him. John and Lori are inside the park to witness this, and John makes a dash for the monster seats. As Ted scurries up the tower, his capturer latches onto his foot and yanks down in one violent motion, tearing Ted in half, send his two-piece body and clumps of white stuffing crashing down to the Fenway turf.
John and Lori look huddle around Ted, and the moment turns somber. Ted is in his final moments before death turns his (furry) body cold, and he tries to spit out a few last words to his friend. He may tell John that Lori is the love of his life and he should take care of her. He may repent for the emotional disturbances he has caused. We don’t know until he tries to speak. He sputters and he spits and he stumbles. And he gets out half a sentence before giving in, his eyes shutting. Lori hugs John on the Fenway outfield, Ted at their feet. It’s quiet.
And then Lori begins scooping up all the stuffing that has sprayed over the grass. John helps, and they rush home and pull out some string and a needle. Lori tries to sew furiously, looping red yarn through Ted’s midsection. She finishes the last loop and they wait. They wait for Ted to spring to life. Except he doesn’t.
John begins to bawl, as he’s seemingly forced to confront death. We are forced to join the fight, too. It’s a heavy moment, one that feels real. Too real, even.
Of course, it’s not real. It’s ridiculous. The next morning in the film, MacFarlane lets us off the hook. Ted awakens, cracks a joke, and everything is right. We are allowed to leave the theater happy, entertained, both ends of our emotional spectrums engaged. We are allowed to believe in the human nature of the story while also acknowledging its absurdities.
“Ted” accomplishes its goal of a light summer laugher, a brief stay in the bowels of comedy. But that’s not the core of its ingenuity. If you let it, the film grants you permission to believe wholeheartedly in something unexpected.