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Grow up? Ha!

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?

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.

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“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.

And when it comes to men behaving in the most meat-headed immature manner, you would have to say that everyone, from MacFarlane and Apatow to Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, owes a huge debt to the mid-20th century mayhem of the Three Stooges.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the best comedies -- notably “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and “Stripes” -- were also full of anarchic childlike behavior. But since they were made by filmmakers who’d come of age in the 1960s counterculture, the hijinks often took the form of rebellion against authority. By the mid-1990s, we’d almost come full circle, with Jim Carrey reviving silent comedy and Stooges-style escapades in such films as “Dumb & Dumber” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

Today, the preferred form of expression for male comedy is regression, not rebellion. Whether it’s MacFarlane, Apatow, Adam Sandler or Todd Phillips (who made both “Old School” and “The Hangover” series), our top comedy minds are products of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, an era expertly captured by a kindred spirit, J.J. Abrams, in last year’s “Super 8.” It was an age of limitations and cultural uncertainty -- think hostage crises and oil shortages -- which may well have spurred young comic minds to turn to the cozy confines of the adolescent womb for inspiration.

All I can say is that we’ve spawned a generation of guys who want to be forever young, clutching their “Star Wars” toys and baggies of weed the way a baby suckles at his mother’s breast. And for whatever reason, we can’t seem to resist them.

In “Ted,” an exasperated Kunis complains: “I need a man, not a little boy with a teddy bear.” But judging from the swarm of moviegoers who showed up over the weekend, we’re all in love with the guy who is just a big hapless teddy bear. In today’s America, growing up just isn’t what it used to be.

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patrick.goldstein @latimes.com

Twitter: @patrickbigpix


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