The “Don’t Watch This” Files: “Ted 2”.
There is one scene in Seth Macfarlane’s execrable sequel to his hugely popular 2012 comedy “Ted” that neatly sums up everything that’s wrong with the second movie. Ted, the casually racist, pot-smoking Beantown bear and his human best friend John (Mark Wahlberg) are engaging in one of their favorite pastimes: attending a local improv comedy show and yelling out suggestions that are morally deplorable. When one of the troupe members asks for an idea from the audience, Ted and John merely hit him with a rotating list of obscene and inhuman subjects: “911!” “Robin Williams!” “The offices of Charlie Hebdo!” Understandably, no one in the audience is amused — which, I guess, is supposed to be funny all by itself. But Ted and John keep on keeping on, bawdily imploring the losers onstage to “make some fuckin’ comedy” out of their cruelty.
Throughout the scene, Ted and John are invisible amongst the darkened view of the audience, which means that MacFarlane and Wahlberg went back and ADR’d the character’s dialogue after the fact. I want to ask the filmmakers, and anyone who finds this sort of thing amusing, one question: what exactly is funny about this scene? Is the mere mention of the Charlie Hebdo massacre enough to qualify as a joke? Without context or incongruity or a setup and a payoff, it’s little more than a cheap, easy punch, landed by two well-off white guys who, if they spent a little less time congratulating themselves on how funny their movie is, might actually be able to come up with a better gag. I suspect MacFarlane fancies himself a renegade for scenes such as this one: there’s an oddly self-congratulatory vibe in the air throughout “Ted 2”, as if MacFarlane is patting himself on the back for being such an irreverent rule-breaker. It’s one thing to be wholly inappropriate and operate outside the normal range of what is considered “acceptable,” but smugness? That’s a harder sin to forgive. Plus, it’s just not funny. Name one David Spade movie that’s funny without the presence of the more affable Chris Farley. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Look, you don’t need me to tell you that “Ted 2” is a bad movie. If you saw one of the trailers, then you’ve seen the maybe three or four moments in the movie that are genuinely funny. Actually, there’s a halfway-inspired scene where Irish acting heavyweight Liam Neeson gets mighty paranoid trying to purchase a box of Trix breakfast cereal (“Am I to understand that Trix is… exclusively for children?”) but that memory fades pretty quick. “Ted 2” is a noxious piece of work: offensive without being truly transgressive, button-pushing without having anything of value to say and most of all, unfunny. I’m not a P.C. warrior. I don’t object to cruelty or depravity in comedy, as long as it has a point, a perspective, and as long as it makes me laugh. Anyone who values invention or originality in their comedy will find “Ted 2” a trying, even punishing sit. Those who simply find the prospect of a teddy bear re-enacting one of the most disturbing scenes from Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” however, will probably have a blast.
I really want to like Seth MacFarlane. In interviews, he’s such a funny, charming, well-spoken and seemingly well-adjusted individual that I find myself wondering why I don’t respond to his T.V. and film work more. The early seasons of his flagship animated comedy “Family Guy” have a nasty, spirited punch to them, and some of the episodes from Season One are a scream. While there’s none of the soul of “The Simpsons” or the laid-back social commentary of Mike Judge’s “King of the Hill,” it’s still probably the best thing MacFarlane’s ever had a hand in, (“Dads,” anyone?) although “American Dad” also has its moments. I even liked parts of the first “Ted,” though it’s not a film that holds up on multiple viewings (any movie that literally concludes with an easy potshot at Taylor Lautner automatically forfeits its bid for longevity). But around the time I made the mistake of watching MacFarlane’s deadly Western “comedy” “A Million Ways to Die in The West,” I realized that MacFarlane was never meant to direct movies. His attempt at a “Blazing Saddles”-style laffer presented him with opportunities to display visual panache and formal invention and maybe, I don’t know, pay tribute to the Western genre in one way or another. For all its smutty gags, though, “Million Ways” looks like your standard CBS show: all dopey establishing shots and flat compositions. The 30-minute sitcom is the ideal vehicle for MacFarlane’s talents: it ensures that his occasionally grating sense of humor doesn’t wear out too quickly, and there’s no real need to be visually engaging, at least not when you keep the jokes coming with such aggressive frequency. And yet I suspect that even die-hard MacFarlane fans might have a tough time defending “Ted 2,” which turns out to be about as funny as a Lars Von Trier movie. Actually, scratch that — there are more genuinely funny moments in “Antichrist” than there are in the entirety of MacFarlane’s alleged comedy. I rescind my statement.
One of “Ted 2’s” biggest mistakes is adding a misguided sense of self-aware “commentary” what is ultimately a dumb bro comedy about two louts who smoke too much weed and trade bawdy wisecracks all the live-long day. “Ted 2” opens with the marriage of Ted the bear and his vulgar girlfriend Tami-Lyn, both of whom still work at the same grocery mart that they did in the first film. When Ted is told by the state that he can’t have children with Tami-Lyn because he’s actually property and not technically a human being, MacFarlane’s movie begins piling on the wrongheaded allusions to Dred Scott, Roe V. Wade, and worse yet. When a movie is ill-prepared to handle these topics with at least some degree of seriousness, you’re in trouble. “This is just like what happened to the fags,” Ted complains at one point, and though there’s a cheap, involuntary snicker to be had at Ted’s blue language, the laugh ultimately dies in your throat. Ditto for a scene where Ted rips a joint while watching the scene from “Roots” in which Kunta Kinte is viciously whipped by his masters. “This guy’s just like me,” Ted says, blowing a cloud of weed smoke at the viewer’s face just after the punchline.
I wonder, during scenes such as these — is MacFarlane, who is clearly much smarter than his middling output suggests, going for genuine satire here? Is he trying and failing, or not even really trying? Does he think simply including that making superficial references to these events through the otherwise perfunctory comic dialogue somehow qualifies him as a cultural critic? I’m not suggesting that Mr. MacFarlane doesn’t have that capacity in him. Now, this would be an easier question to answer if the movie’s courtroom scenes — which are the hinges upon which the quote-unquote plot of the movie rests — weren’t so damn ham-fisted. Amanda Seyfried does what she can with the thankless role of Ted’s aspiring lawyer and John’s budding love interest, (yuck) but there’s only so much the talented actress can do with a part written by two dudes (Alec Sulkin and Wellesly Wild, who wrote the script with their frequent collaborator and buddy MacFarlane) who are clearly not very interested in writing meaningful parts for women. Giovanni Ribisi also shows up again, playing his off-putting character from the first “Ted,” and while he was funny in small doses the first time around, the writer’s composite of the character is so viciously mean-spirited that it makes it hard to laugh without feeling horrible about yourself.
I’m sure there will be plenty of people for whom “Ted 2” will serve what is probably its intended purpose. This is a movie for you to crack open a beer to, light up a bongload to. All it’s meant to do is make you laugh and forget about your problems for two hours. So why all the half-assed stabs at social critique in a movie that has superficial, easy jokes, spirited performances and absolutely zero staying power? It’s a movie that’s probably really, really funny if you’re a twelve-year old who thinks curse words are in and of themselves hilarious, not to mention the movie’s many repeated references to the genitalia of African-American males (other critics have attempted to dissect the psychology of Mr. MacFarlane’s repeated references to this subject, but I’m not going to do that here). And yet I would argue that we as a filmgoing community need to hold comedies — even dumb, silly, ostensibly harmless films ones like “Ted 2” — to a much higher standard. Comedy has the value of illuminating truth, breaking down social barriers and making us laugh at things we might question or disapprove of in real life. I’m not saying it has to teach us something, but we’re better than this. Comedy is a release: a form of therapy when executed right. It’s definitely not a scene where a man is covered in semen extracted from medical patients with sickle cell anemia, and then told “you’re covered in the sperm of rejected black guys. You’re like a Kardashian.”