1. How sincere is Sincere Seth MacFarlane? I know I’m a dope for even asking—associating a genuine emotion with such a sniggering clown is a sucker’s bet—but I really do want to know. Because Ted 2 has moments, lots of moments, that it seems to play completely straight, as if we are watching an actual movie with actual characters, rather than a useless farce about a talking teddy bear who tells Chinaman jokes while calling his wife a whore. Sometimes, I understand what MacFarlane is doing, like when he expresses his unironic (for him) love for musical theater with an ambitiously staged (if not exactly foot-tapping) dance sequence during the opening credits. But mostly I just gaped at the screen, flabbergasted that he has no one in his life to tap him on the shoulder and let him know that his bro friends aren’t the only people on the planet. Does he really think we care about this stupid asshole bear and his loser meathead friend? You will be shocked by the number of closeups in this movie of Ted looking meaningfully into the camera, blinking, frowning, sad. What the hell is this shit?
2. Here’s the best example I can give you. The whole premise of the film is that Ted, voiced as always by MacFarlane (who also directs, and cowrote the script), is fighting in the American court system for his personhood. He wants to be known as a person with rights rather than a piece of property. That’s the precise phrasing the film continually uses: “property.” Now, in theory, this could be a clothesline for a few jokes about a white-bro bear—and never have I been so certain of a stuffed bear’s ethnicity—and his “suffering,” and there is one, in which Ted and his human pal John (Mark Wahlberg, who I dare say is starting to feel a little old for this?) take bong hits on the couch while Roots plays on the screen, and Ted says, “This is exactly what I’m going through.” Except maybe the movie takes it seriously? Maybe it’s not joking? I know it sounds absurd, but what am I to make of a late scene wherein Morgan Freeman, playing a civil rights attorney hired to argue Ted’s case, actually says to the jury, in sonorous, Morgan Freeman tones, “You stand here today in the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment” as dramatic music sways. There is no joke there. Freeman doesn’t look at the camera and wink. (But oh, how he probably wanted to wink at the camera, or maybe just punch it.) This is the movie’s big emotional crescendo: MacFarlane seems to want us to be legitimately moved. What am I supposed to take from that? What exactly is happening?
3. Look, I don’t want to spend my time analyzing a dumb comedy’s ethnographic attitudes either. But Ted 2 keeps forcing them on me. The problem is that MacFarlane never goes all the way with it in the way you need him to. Mel Brooks once cheerfully joked that his movies “rose beneath vulgarity,” and that’s what MacFarlane can’t manage. Brooks was vulgar for vulgarity’s sake: He would go anywhere for a joke, but only for a joke. But this movie’s crassness is more base and self-serving than that; it’s just tossing out 9/11 and Ferguson “jokes” to make sure your wavering eyes fixate back on the screen, like a middle school kid who snaps a girl’s bra so she’ll notice him and eventually fall in love. Behind every joke, there is this undeniable, almost overpowering sense that MacFarlane desperately, profoundly wants you to love him, to understand that His Life Is Hard, Too. It was more oppressive in his flop A Million Ways to Die in the West—if just because MacFarlane, who played the lead in that film, has a face that’s about 10,000 times less expressive than a cheaply CGI’d teddy bear—but it’s thrown at you in every scene of Ted 2 as well. He’s way too insecure to ever go all-in.
4. It really is a shame, because MacFarlane, for all his faults, is an expert in comedic timing; his patter can almost convince you you’re listening to something funny. But Ted 2 is the same series of awkward lazy setup to obvious payoff jokes as the 2012 original, only a little bit more labored this time. (Is there really no better way to set up a surprise celebrity cameo than saying, “[SURPRISE CELEBRITY CAMEO] uses your bathroom to pick up guys for gay sex,” and then having that surprise celebrity shuffle nervously out of the bathroom? That’s all MacFarlane can come up with.) Do you think it’s funny when straight guys won’t take a bong hit because the bong is shaped like a penis? Do you think it’s funny when Mark Wahlberg slips in a fertility clinic and gets semen all over his face? Do you think it’s funny when everyone gets stoned, goes up on the roof, and throws apples at joggers just because they’re jogging? Maybe these things are funny to people? I’m reminded of the recent episode of Louie when Louie meets a hack comedian who tries to get him to loosen up on trying to be a “good” comic and just go for the cheapest, easiest joke that will appeal to the drunkest, least discerning customers. Maybe that guy’s right. Maybe it’s stupid to try? Sometimes you just throw up your hands.
5. There’s enough shit thrown at the wall here that you’ll laugh a couple of times. Even I did, though usually I wasn’t laughing at Ted himself. (There’s a terrific gag involving a doctor and his surprising propensity for good cheer.) But the problem with these movies is less the hackneyed jokes and more the angle of their perspective. Insult comedy is fine if we’ve all come in agreeing that everybody is mean, and we’re just all going to be mean to each other. In the Loop, one of the funniest comedies I’ve ever seen, is merciless in a way MacFarlane couldn’t fathom, but it’s merciless to everyone, including itself. But MacFarlane only uses mean humor, perversely, to make you like him. There’s a good joke in the idea of a white-bro teddy bear trying to convince himself he’s in the middle of a serious civil rights struggle; there are jokes that could go in every direction, puncturing everyone involved. But he doesn’t have the discipline, or the self-awareness: He also wants us to like Ted, to believe in Ted, which is to say, really, to believe in him, Seth MacFarlane, the lovable scamp who doesn’t really mean all those jokes about black cocks. And next thing you know, Morgan Freeman is applying the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation to a fucking bear. People defend MacFarlane by saying he’ll go anywhere for a joke, but that’s not true at all: The only place he goes for jokes is up his own ass. It’s increasingly obvious that he lives there.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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