The first “Ted” was one of those surprise smashes that nobody could have prepared for. Directed by Seth MacFarlane, who made his successful career by overseeing popular animated series “Family Guy,” “Ted” starred Mark Wahlberg, an actor known more for his action movie chomps than comedic sensibilities. Made for a relatively paltry $50 million, “Ted” was released in a crowded summer season against features that cost three times as much. And yet it defied all expectations, earning generally solid reviews and pulling down a whopping $550 million worldwide. Since then, however, MacFarlane has had his fare share of disappointments, punctuated by the cancelation of some of his TV shows (including the heavily hyped “Family Guy” spinoff “The Cleveland Show”), a giant box office bomb (last summer’s genuinely odious “A Million Ways to Die in the West”) and a truly disastrous job hosting the Oscars. In this context, “Ted 2” doesn’t just seem like an inevitable corporate cash-in; instead it feels like a desperate act of self-preservation, and a painfully unfunny one at that.
About the only surprising thing about “Ted 2” is its opening title sequence, set after Ted, the anthropomorphic teddy bear voiced by MacFarlane, gets married to his trashy longtime sweetie Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). It’s a lavish dance number that doesn’t offer anything in terms of the narrative, but offers a nice excuse for MacFarlane, a noted fan of old-timey musicals, to indulge in something unnecessary and excessive (both hallmarks of any bloated Hollywood sequel). After that brief sequence, though, there’s virtually nothing, either narratively or visually, to engage with. Instead, it’s one long (115 minutes), moderately unpleasant slog, hopscotching from one “outrageous,” pop culture-infused gag to the next without any sense of purpose or the original’s irreverent sense of fun.
Shortly after his marriage, Ted and Tami-Lynn have hit an impasse. They’re fighting all the time and throwing things at one another. Their solution, cooked up by Wahlberg’s John Bennett, is to try and have a baby. Since Ted is a stuffed bear and Tami-Lynn is infertile, the couple has to go through a lengthy adoption process, which reveals that the state of Massachusetts doesn’t legally consider Ted a human being, revoking him of all of the civil rights that go along with the title. If you’re thinking, Oh dear god does the midsection of “Ted 2” become a soggy courtroom drama? The answer is yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Pacing has never been one of MacFarlane’s strong suits, but “Ted 2” suffers dearly in that department. This is a movie full of narrative tangents, the kind of nonsensical side plots that have defined MacFarlane’s small screen output (for better or worse), to the point that it’s almost comprised exclusively of these moments. One minute, “Ted 2” could be flirting with giving actual thematic weight to the parallels between Ted’s plight and the oppression of gays, women, or African Americans, only, seconds later, to toggle to a Liam Neeson cameo that feels hopelessly stale (keep in mind this is Neeson’s second big screen comedy cameo of the summer.) Samantha, a young lawyer played by Amanda Seyfried (clearly not learning her lesson after costarring in “A Million Ways to Die in the West”), is introduced as a plucky, idealistic champion of Ted’s case. But as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that she’s really just a pretty distraction, meant to help John forget about his messy (and entirely off-camera) divorce to Lori (Mila Kunis from the first film). The third act is the most egregious example of competing narrative threads never coalescing, including a lengthy road trip to New York City, a “Jurassic Park” gag that somehow combines the iconic theme music with a field of marijuana, and countless references to New York Comic Con. Giovanni Ribisi even returns as a covetous villain, whose scheme is beyond harebrained and somehow incorporates lots and lots of Hasbro product placement.
One of the biggest sins that “Ted 2” commits is sidelining Wahlberg to the point that he’s basically a non-character. If there was any comedic friction from the first film, it was that Wahlberg, an actual human character, was dealing with outgrowing his childhood best friend. This is something relatable, and the quasi-magical aspect of Ted was relegated to the sidelines, allowing us to focus on Wahlberg and his dealings with his very reasonable girlfriend who wanted him to ditch his foul-mouthed toy. This time around, Wahlberg barely registers. He’s charming and charismatic and gets out a few zingers (his response to Ted wanting to exercise the “Beetlejuice” contingency is particularly hilarious), but his relationship between Seyfried and even his evolving friendship with Ted, isn’t given the proper amount of emotional gravitas (or screen time). Instead, what should be the heart of the movie is just another throwaway gag.
As a director, MacFarlane is best when he’s channeling his inner cartoonist. There’s a nifty montage set to Bone Harmony’s “One Foot in Front of the Other,” an eighties pop song popularized in “Revenge of the Nerds.” It’s energetic and shows you what happens when a man who works in the medium of animation can transition to live action and feel just as unencumbered by the laws of reality or physics (The only caveat: MacFarlane has used this song before, in a virtually identical context, for an episode of “Family Guy.”) Elsewhere, MacFarlane falls back on similarly tired tropes: weed jokes, blatant sexism, racism and misogyny, geeky shout-outs (particularly in the Comic Con section) and gags that are supposed to be edgy but instead just come off as gross and offensive.
In more adventurous hands, “Ted 2” could have really said something about the state of minorities in America, the troubled history of the United States, and what constitutes personhood. There have been bawdy comedies who have addressed this in the past, ones who have stood up for their convictions, subverted audience expectations, and made jokes about semen and marijuana. Instead, “Ted 2” gives lip service to civil liberties and spends the rest of the running time picking the easiest joke to tell, again and again and again. “Ted 2” might be enough of a financial success to put MacFarlane back on top, but creatively, he’s still bankrupt. [D]