Deep Focus: Ted 2
On the big screen and in his own skin, Seth MacFarlane looks as dead-eyed and immobile as the characters in the old Clutch Cargo series, which pasted filmed human mouths on still cartoons. But as an uninhibited comedian providing the voice and movements for the foul-mouthed teddy bear in his Ted movies, MacFarlane comes alive as a performer. He brings to the furry creature a chugging, Ready Teddy motion that’s difficult to resist on a stubby-legged 18-inch toy. He riffs merrily with his co-stars, especially Mark Wahlberg as John Bennett, Ted’s fellow Boston stoner and “thunder buddy forever.” Always at his best as a turbocharged motormouth, Wahlberg also brought the authentic profane spew of Beantown to Scorsese’s The Departed. In the Ted movies, the mere prospect of weed energizes Wahlberg’s John, fueling jags of enthusiasm or paranoia.
MacFarlane and his special-effects wizards infuse the teddy bear’s face as well as his voice with wicked nuances, registering every hairpin turn in Ted and John’s nonstop conversation, whether they’re performing a duet of legal terms gleaned from Law & Order or expressing their disbelief that the “F” in F. Scott Fitzgerald stands for Francis and not their favorite expletive. Early on we learn that John’s love interest in the first film (Mila Kunis) divorced him after six months, probably because she just couldn’t share his lust for weed. So he’s free to devote all his energy to Ted. At their most engaging, John and Ted are like a buddy-buddy version of Jimmy Fallon’s Sully and Rachel Dratch’s Denise, the rabid lovers and Red Sox fans in the “Boston Teens” skits on Saturday Night Live.
Too bad the Ted movies don’t draw out similar talents for MacFarlane as a director. Both Ted films go on 40 minutes too long, but at least the first one had novelty and undiluted impudence. In Ted 2, MacFarlane treats the franchise as a bong. He packs it with his favorite things: homages to movie musicals and thrillers and cult TV, cameos from a cavalcade of sports and media celebrities, willfully offensive jokes and references to “black cocks” and “white niggers,” and some underlying liberal messages. By mixing social uplift into adolescent humor, and defending everyone’s right to clueless behavior, he inoculates the film against charges of racism or insensitivity, and, to some extent, clears the air for the audience. (In some ways, Ted 2 is MacFarlane’s domestic equivalent of Adam Sandler’s plea for peace in the Middle East, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and will doubtless gather the same opponents and defenders.) But instead of melding potently, the ingredients simply vaporize—or even worse, melt into crocodile tears.
MacFarlane and his co-writers, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, think they’re crafting a heartfelt comic message movie about America’s need to protect civil rights for all minorities, including a minority of one—a talking teddy bear. It’s impossible, though, for this crew, or maybe anyone, to pull off such a funky-sentimental potpourri.
If MacFarlane’s raunchy brand of humor stands for anything genuine, it’s for vulgar honesty and untamable animal spirits—as when Ted offers John some crude, clueless suggestions on how to improve his dormant sex life, or when John finds it hard to navigate a sperm donor center and, while horsing around with Ted, bangs into shelves full of specimens. As George Orwell wrote in “The Art of Donald McGill,” an analysis of crude comic postcards, low visual comedies represent “a harmless rebellion against virtue.” In their “worm’s-eye view of life . . . marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster.” These visions thrive on “unredeemed low-ness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever,” and “the slightest hint of 'higher' influences would ruin them utterly.” Ted 2, alas, bears more than a hint of “higher influences.” Besides its plea for civic fairness, it also takes a swipe at corporate greed. MacFarlane brings back Ted’s creepy stalker Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) from the first film and puts him in cahoots with a grasping Hasbro honcho (John Carroll Lynch), who’d like to rip Ted open, discover what makes him tick and talk—and market him as a product.
Even when the film is being tart and lowdown, you question how deep MacFarlane’s own vulgar roots really go. It feels real that Ted and John throw apples at a jogger and rejoice when a bicyclist crashes into him. That expresses their disdain for exercise and self-improvement. It feels artificial that they’d ask a female lawyer friend to join in on the action. Only rarely does this movie hit the bull’s-eye, notably when Ted and John celebrate good news by yelling out tragic topics for improv at a comedy club. For example, the comics on stage ask their audience to suggest a location for a skit, and John and Ted blurt out: “The offices of Charlie Hebdo!”
Ted 2 starts at a promising fast clip. Ted and his girlfriend, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), get married, and the opening credits feature Ted singing and dancing to Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” with intricate Busby Berkeley chorus lines (Rob Ashford did the choreography). The glow fades as Ted accuses Tami-Lynn of over-spending on work clothes: after all, like him, she is a grocery-store cashier who wears a smock over everything. Encouraged by another cashier, Ted decides that the only way to save the marriage is to have a child. But the Commonwealth of Massachusetts suddenly notices that a walking, wisecracking teddy bear is behaving like a full-fledged citizen. The state declares that Ted and Tami-Lynn can neither adopt a child nor stay married, because Ted is “property,” not a person. With the aid of fledgling attorney Samantha Leslie Jackson (Amanda Seyfried), John, Ted, and Tami-Lynn set out to prove that a teddy bear’s life matters. Samantha earns their trust because she’s a pothead, too, though she doesn’t see the humor in being named Sam L. Jackson. (Ted asks: “You ever seen any movie ever? He’s the black guy.”)
MacFarlane and company might have thought this courtroom-drama hook would extend the franchise and disarm critics. But the ensuing riffs are wildly variable. It’s amusing to see Samantha study Dred Scott v. Sandford or Plessy v. Ferguson while John examines DVDs of Kramer vs. Kramer and Alien vs. Predator and Ted, presumably deciding to get serious, studies earnest movies, including Jim Varney’s Ernest movies as well as a “very disappointing” remake of The Importance of Being Earnest. But it’s flimsy and silly for this trio to break into a line dance at the law library in a feeble nod to The Breakfast Club. In one juicy interchange, John Slattery, as sleek opposing attorney Shep Wild, asks Ted whether he has a soul. Ted responds by belting out the passionate question “What did you think I would do at this moment?” from Billy Vera’s “At this Moment.” (When Wild objects, Ron Canada’s imposing black judge soulfully proclaims, “Over-ruled.”) But Samantha’s plea for the jury to bring justice to Ted now, instead of forcing him to wait as blacks and gays have waited, is too on the nose. It’s as if she’s the one who’s been studying how to be earnest.
MacFarlane scatters some clever parodies throughout the film, of everything from topical SNL skits to panels on CNN and Fox News (at the latter channel, conservative pundits confess they all agree all the time). After Ted, John, and Sam hit the highway, hoping to enlist the help of a famous New York civil-rights lawyer (Morgan Freeman), Ted the bear starts acting like Toonces the cat, sending the potheads off-road and into an expanse of dynamite marijuana, as the “wonder music” from Jurassic Park wells up on the soundtrack. Sadly, most of the other music cues are wan, and John and Sam’s sole romantic clutch is perfunctory. Surprisingly, like Ted, you want more down-and-dirty details. The Donny-Hasbro subplot culminates in a joyless, klutzy chase through Comic-Con New York at the Javits Center (re-created in Los Angeles), sparked only by the in-joke appearance of Patrick Warburton in his Tick costume and Michael Dorn in his Worf getup from two Star Trek series (in the movie, Warburton and Dorn also play gay lovers).
The film culminates in a succession of feel-bad/feel-good scenes that fail to generate what MacFarlane is going after: a robust, wised-up warmth. Is there anything more deflating than failed self-conscious sentimentality? With just the second film in the franchise, MacFarlane is already pressing his luck. As the series’ narrator (Patrick Stewart) said in the first film: “No matter how big a splash you make in this world, whether you're Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber, or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit.”