I know how I feel about the comedy of Seth MacFarlane. Even without watching Family Guy in over a decade, his foulmouthed teddy-bear movie Ted pretty much got me up to speed, and it was only my indifference to that movie that allowed me to like his follow-up perhaps just a tiny bit more than some people (though still not very much). So: MacFarlane and me, we’re pretty much sorted, far as the likelihood of me getting more than a few laughs out of his feature films. What I found myself wondering during Ted 2, which opens today, was how MacFarlane feels about that same work.
Just last year, I would’ve said he must feel great; smugness radiates from the MacFarlane oeuvre (not least when he’s casting himself as an on-screen romantic lead, even when he’s kinda-sorta making himself the butt of a joke). But two things happen during the opening minutes of Ted 2: first, the opening sequence drops us into the wedding of Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and his beloved Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), which includes a reception, which includes a velvet-voiced wedding singer… who is somehow not played by MacFarlane himself, which must have taken near superhuman strength considering that the man has fashioned a side career for himself as a crooner (and, due credit: despite the recycled Boston accent he provides for Ted, the man has an impressive vocal range as a voiceover artist). Second, the opening leads into an opening-credits musical number, which not only doesn’t feature MacFarlane either (Ted is silent and uncharacteristically merry-looking through the whole thing), but doesn’t feature any jokes at all.
No, this dance number isn’t funny, unless there’s supposed to be some residual ironic kick in the sight of a diminutive stuffed bear who swears a lot and says racist-just-kidding-except-not stuff for laffs kicking up his heels with a bunch of talented dancers (both male and female). As far as I can tell, though, it’s just a well-staged dance number costarring what remains, for all of his faults as a comic character, an impressive CG creation. I imagine some work went into this sequence, and it shows. I wouldn’t be surprised if MacFarlane wants to direct a musical someday, and I hope he does, because the degree to which I enjoyed the non-comic opening of Ted 2 more than the much of the rest of the movie makes me feel like a humorless rod.
There are some other moments I enjoyed in Ted 2—sometimes, but not always, involving actual attempts at comedy. A climactic sequence set at the New York Comic Con features a multi-costume cross-nerd brawl that, like a lot of MacFarlane’s reference humor, doesn’t have much in the way of joke construction, but is undeniably fun for the way it pits different movie, TV, and comics references against each other. Even this sequence doesn’t build, though, because hardly any comic sequence in this movie builds. Earlier, there’s a fight between Ted and his lifelong buddy John (Mark Wahlberg) happening in the background, slightly out of focus, while Ted’s lawyer Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) makes a Serious Phonecall in the foreground, and the staging is funny at outset, but never escalates the way you’d expect MacFarlane—he of the committed if vaguely self-congratulatory endless chicken fight—to demand.
Ted 2 has plenty of time for comic set pieces to fizzle out, because Jesus, it feels long. It’s “only” 115 minutes (in other words, shorter than my beloved Anchorman 2 or any number of Judd Apatow movies that I’d defend in a heartbeat) but feels especially protracted due to its baffling series of false starts. After the opening credits, Ted and Tami-Lynn’s marriage immediately goes on the rocks, which leads Ted to decide they can save their relationship, if they have a baby, which leads to misadventures involving finding a sperm donor, which leads to an adoption agency, which leads to the Massachusetts state government denying Ted’s marriage and personhood (the law not having any provisions for teddy bears who magically came to life based on a child’s wish), which finally, finally, leads to the actual plot of the movie: the legal defense of Ted as an independent, living entity, rather than mere property.
Which is a totally decent plot for a comedy sequel, and also a conflict that could have arrived within the first ten minutes had it been tied directly to Ted’s wedding in the first place. They go to get their wedding license and find out they can’t get married; boom, done. Did MacFarlane (apparently a committed leftist, to be fair) think the right to marry didn’t offer enough stakes without a baby hanging over it, or did he think he’d never have another single opportunity to write a bunch of jokes about errant jizz? Maybe if the would-be set piece where Ted and John break into Tom Brady’s house to give him a secret handjob for purposes of stealing his semen actually amounted to anything more than a wild idea without much follow-through, I’d say, ok, follow your jizz-related muse. But the weirdly diffuse plotting of Ted 2 doesn’t play like circuitous writing for comic effect; it plays like an episode of Ted: The Series pasted onto the front of a movie that takes for-fucking-ever to get going. When it does rev up, the gay-marriage parallels feel like half-assed window-dressing. I think I might have mentioned this before: MacFarlane doesn’t seem to have real satirical instincts, so after coming up with a pretty clever engine for a Ted sequel, he lets it idle, without any real-world relevance beyond this foulmouthed teddy bear feeling as frustrated by US law as gay folks do.
Which leaves me wondering again whether MacFarlane is really feeling this particular and highly profitable enterprise. If he really is bored, though, maybe he could try working through it by attempting to write a single joke for (that’s for, not about) his female lead. Seyfried, taking over for the departed Mila Kunis character, gets written as “cool,” which is to say she’s kind of a High Times pin-up girl, a wicked earnest lawyer who still smokes a ton of weed while sitting barefoot on her fancy desk. Her big comic hook (besides the weed): she doesn’t know any pop culture references, because I guess it really is all or nothing for MacFarlane. Seyfried gets nothing: blank reaction shots to other people (which is to say: dudes) joking about the blanks in her cultural knowledge (and, as in her similarly empty Million Ways part, her gigantic eyes).
I did laugh a few times in Ted 2, usually at one-offs like Ted’s insistence that in his time of need, he ought to try summoning Beetlejuice, or a timely Jurassic Park nod that MacFarlane steps on by over-quoting. Hell, I laughed when Liam Neeson walked on screen and performed what amounts to an extended riff on the old ads about Trix being for kids, even understanding its load-bearing position in the MacFarlane wheelhouse. But with 115 more minutes of misses and occasional hits, it’s hard to feel that joyful accumulation that better comedies provide.
MacFarlane doesn’t turn up in the flesh this time, perhaps chastened by the negative Million Ways reactions. But he seems to restless to give this movie his all; even the revival of his Flash Gordon jokes feels perfunctory. Maybe moviemaking isn’t for him. When so much your comedy depends on a mix of celebrity cameos (Neeson, Jay Leno, Dennis Haysbert) and random potshots at other celebrities (take that, Steven Tyler!), maybe what you really want isn’t to write and direct a feature film. Maybe you just want to emcee a celebrity roast.