Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Seth MacFarlane. Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild. Produced by Jason Clark, John Jacobs, Seth MacFarlane, Scott Stuber. Music by Walter Murphy. Photographed by Michael Barrett. Edited by Jeff Freeman. Production designed by Stephen J. Lineweaver. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, Patrick Warburton.
Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, has built his empire on a bedrock of brazen, cheerful offensiveness. In his world, absolutely no taboo is unbreakable, which certainly can be a valuable way to approach comedy. The take-no-prisoners approach, after all, worked wonders for one of MacFarlane’s clear inspirations, Mel Brooks. But MacFarlane’s work has always teetered drunkenly on the line between pointedly edgy and aimlessly mean-spirited, and with Ted 2 he falls on the wrong side. The result is sour and ugly.
The first Ted was not great, but it was confident: despite its unrepentant vulgarity and occasionally hurtful material, it had a rapid-fire pace and something that resembled, sort of, a beating heart. It felt like it knew what it was doing, and had carefully diagrammed its exit strategy on how to get away with it. Perhaps MacFarlane used up all his ideas in Ted, because Ted 2 is a misfire covered in flopsweat. In devising a sequel to a movie that MacFarlane is probably smart enough to know didn’t need one, his style turns to workmanlike desperation, with too much plot, too few jokes, and a generally unpleasant air of self-satisfaction. The original Ted had endless invention, and this one is endless miscalculation. And I do mean endless—its two-hour runtime feels twice that.
Returning from the first, we have both MacFarlane, voicing the misanthropic racist teddy bear known as Ted, and also Mark Wahlberg as a Bostonian layabout named John. The two grew up together and became best buddy stoners, and both, as Ted 2 begins, face marriages on the rocks. Mila Kunis, John’s love interest from the first film (and absent from this one), has divorced him, rendering the first movie’s most sweet element as something to be casually dismissed. Ted’s own marital life to supermarket clerk Tammi-Lynn (Jessica Barth) has turned acrid, and Ted thinks having a baby might save it. That would take some doing, at first simply because Ted is a stuffed bear and ill-equipped for that particular function. But also, it turns out, Ted is not a person in the eyes of the law, and so as he and John enlist lawyer Amanda Seyfried (the character’s name is Sam L. Jackson—ha ha) to help them, the movie turns into a callow and self-congratulatory civil rights parable, one that is played far too seriously.
That’s the most curious thing about Ted 2: long stretches where the jokes are either sparse, lame or just plain non-existent. This includes an opening ten minutes that contains a flat wedding party scene, a straight-faced song-and-dance number and a shrill marital argument that all possess an uneasy commitment to actual comedy. It gets better, a little, as it goes on, but the movie overall makes the mistake of presuming we truly care about Ted’s struggle—with many moments played with utmost sincerity—and it doesn’t work one bit. As a sidekick, Ted is a decent comedic livewire, and some of his zingers still hit this time around. But as a protagonist, Ted is so unlikable, nasty and one-note that MacFarlane should have done something to ramp up the joke count.
Some bits hit (there are faintly funny cameos, and one great one), but mostly what’s left in the humor department—besides the exhausting amount of dead air—is deeply lazy: recycled gags, pop culture references that are nothing more than just references, characters that don’t make sense, and an altogether baffling run of jokes that is straight-up, unforgivably racist. Other moments, like one where John and Ted attend an improv show and throw out vile (and topical) suggestions basically makes fun of comedians who don’t push the limits, although that’s coming from MacFarlane, who prefers aimless comedy that repulses over thoughtful material that doesn’t.
There’s a place for MacFarlane’s sensibilities, I suppose, but not in a movie that lacks so much perspective, or one that keeps pointing to a heart it doesn’t have. At one point, a lawyer argues that Ted cannot be a person because he lacks empathy. The attorney is painted as a villain, but the problem is, he isn’t wrong at all. But that’s Ted 2 for you: a movie that wants to have its terrible bear and then love him, too. Oh, and without enough jokes.