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Ted 2 (2015)

Ted Talks (But Has Nothing to Say)

It’s fitting that Seth MacFarlane is a huge Star Wars fan. Like his idol, George Lucas, the Family Guy and Ted creator reached such a high point in entertainment that he no longer has to take editorial orders from anyone. While all artists aspire to creative and financial freedom, a lack of boundaries can lead to aimless excess. Lucas, once a scrappy young visionary who nearly killed himself convincing the world that Star Wars should be a thing, aged into a one-man branding empire whose concern for merchandising and “narrative poetry” resulted in the bloated and superfluous Prequel Trilogy. MacFarlane, once the scrappy young animator who fought Fox to resurrect Family Guy and then rocked the world by transitioning seamlessly from prime time cartoons to live-action filmmaking, floundered in A Million Ways to Die in the West and hits a dead stop in Ted 2.

The 2012 original made boatloads of cash, so a sequel was inevitable. Unlike most cash-ins, the premise of Ted 2 offers not only fertile comedic ground but is also incredibly topical. Ted, the talking stuffed bear who came to life thanks to a childhood wish by his owner, John (Mark Wahlberg), gets married to his human store-clerk girlfriend, Tami Lynn (Jessica Barth). Unable to conceive children, the couple tries a fertility clinic and, through a series of events I honestly don’t remember,* Ted’s personhood comes into question by the government. His marriage gets annulled, his credit cards revoked, and his iffy sovereignty becomes an “in” for toy manufacturer Hasbro, whose CEO (John Carroll Lynch) plans to reacquire and dissect the bear, and mass-market magical talking versions of him.

True, MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild aren’t obligated to deliver anything more than a foul-mouthed farce—and no one on the production could have known that their film’s opening would coincide with a landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. But Ted 2 dabbles too loosely in both arenas to be anything more than a frustrating time-suck. The film opens with a quirky wedding scene, transitions into a tiresome opening musical number, and settles into a really disturbing domestic squabble whose only laughs, I guess, come from the fact that one of the combatants is a talking bear. Swap any human into the Ted role, and you have the beginnings of a battered-spouse picture--not the makings of a goofy road-trip movie; certainly not a film that anyone looking to promote equal rights would want to hold up, let alone watch.

That's part of MacFarlane's schtick: pushing the audience to the limits of their comedic expectations to see who's left laughing in the crossed-arms crowd. The best litmus test is Family Guy's "Chicken Fight" motif, in which Peter Griffin and a guy in a chicken suit punch each other repeatedly for minutes on end, in the middle of an episode that's not really about them. For some, it's a moment to fast-forward on the DVR; for others (like me), it's a great comedy loop that moves from absurd to funny to taxing and back again. Ted 2 is a dark-spirited, two-hour version of that, though, and even fans have their limits.

This might've been easier to stomach had MacFarlane and company begun with a solid vision. The creator recently admitted that the initial story idea involved a cross-country pot-smuggling adventure--which was scrapped when We're the Millers stole their thunder. The Ted's-rights plot could have been a hard-hitting civil rights satire (yes, including the John-gets-drenched-in-semen joke), but the behind-the-scenes schizophrenia emits black radiation from the screen. The road-trip stuff is still there, as is a half-hour of fertilization/adoption skits; a dropped-ball Inherit the Wind-style courtroom drama (with the wonderful John Slattery giving the slimy-lawyer archetype an unexpectedly sincere dimension); a detour to New York Comic-Con, a stilted romance between Ted's pot-smoking lawyer, Samantha (Amanda Seyfried), and John; and the Hasbro storyline, which brings back Giovanni Ribisi's creepy villain from Part One. Any one of these plots require specific story beats to get from A to Z. MacFarlane's team mashes them all together and ticks off each box--resulting in a bad, four-hour Netflix sitcom disguised as a foul-mouthed message movie.

That's not to say I didn't laugh a bit. Ted 2 is packed with MacFarlane's trademark non-sequitur celebrity cameos (Liam Neeson's was a highlight), and you can make a drinking game out of how many Star Trek: The Next Generation actors pop up in this thing.** There's also a visit to an improv club that provided some much needed third-act relief. But some of the humor was downright incongruous with Ted 2's greater message about the dignity of all sentient creatures. In a courtroom scene, Ted refers to gays as "fags" and "homos" with a clueless insensitivity that defies belief. In context, the writers don't use these terms to describe how clueless, insensitive people refer to an oppressed minority; Ted actually uses the tools of oppression to describe that group. The distinction is hair-fiber fine, but it's important, and makes me wonder what kind of people are actually behind Ted.

In addition to four decent laughs, I'll give this film credit for two other things. First, the visual effects used to make Ted a believable, interactive creature are phenomenal. Even more so than the first film, I believed that Wahlberg and Seyfried had a relationship with a talking teddy bear. Somehow, MacFarlane's team of artists made the character's dead marble eyes dance--an illusion of expression, considering that they don't actually move.

Second, I appreciated what the filmmakers tried to do with product placement here. Unlike Jurassic World, which nakedly asked audience members to drink Starbucks while signing up for Verizon, Ted 2 turns sponsorship on its ear--sort of. Hasbro is all over this picture, from My Little Pony statues to a framed Monopoly board in the CEO's office to more Transformers than actually appeared in Wahlberg's last outing with them, this is about as product-place-y as you can get. Yet, Hasbro is the villain here, the unscrupulous corporation whose leader will kowtow to a skeevy janitor's criminal plans in the name of making a buck. When backed into a corner, Lynch's character even tries to pin the whole thing on Mattel. It's simultaneously brilliant and gross, and reminded me of the first film's superior qualities.

I don't know what's next for Seth MacFarlane, but my enthusiasm meter has been firmly reset to "0". For me, the fact that this guy can do whatever he wants, apparently, has morphed from a point of fascination to one of concern for my very valuable time. Family Guy and the original Ted may not be everyone's comedic cup of tea, but they are undoubtedly boundaries-pushing and often nimble works. MacFarlane's last two efforts (especially this one) put the "Ted" in "tedious".

*Doubly sad, since I saw the film less than 48 hours ago.

**Four, by my count.

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