The first “Ted” was a pivotal moment for Seth MacFarlane. It was his first live-action project, and it was a chance to see if he could successfully launch a whole new empire, one that stood separate from “Family Guy.” While I didn't love “Ted,” I thought it was a solid step for MacFarlane as a filmmaker. His second live-action film, “A Million Ways To Die In The West”? Less so.
I'm already ambivalent about MacFarlane, so adding the extra pressure of my belief that comedy sequels are almost uniformly unsuccessful, and I didn't have very high hopes for “Ted 2” at all. I can report that it is pretty much exactly what I thought a “Ted” sequel would be, complete with a larger canvass and diminishing returns on some of the laughs. Like most comedy sequels, it is too long and too indulgent in calling back to the original film. There are several scenes in the film that got me to laugh, but there are plenty of scenes that simply follow a mechanical formula that is enormously familiar to anyone familiar with his work with co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. If MacFarlane is anything, he is the master of the Strange Little Thing That Behaves Inappropriately.
Ted, as a character, is cut from the same cloth as both Stewie and Brian from “Family Guy” and the Paul Lynde alien guy from “American Dad,” and your ultimate reaction to this film is going to depend on how much mileage there is in that archetype for you. Sure enough, Ted says plenty of horrifying things in the film, and he smokes pot out of a dick bong and he assaults random passers-by and he pushes the language so much further than MacFarlane will ever be able to do on television, and that's the point. Sort of.
Because the film does have something else on its mind this time, and I sort of respect the swing they take even as I wince at how much they miss it. The premise this time is that Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and his wife Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) are having trouble in their marriage, so they decide to have a kid together. Because that solves everything when a couple's in trouble, obviously. Unfortunately, their efforts cause them to suddenly appear on the legal radar in a way they didn't expect, and suddenly Ted is forced to defend himself and his civil rights. The film deals largely with the legal struggles they face and the budding relationship between Ted's lawyer Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Mark Wahlberg), whose childhood wish was what brought Ted to life in the first place, and unfortunately, it pushes really hard to try to tie Ted's court case in the film into some larger real-world significance, and every time they mention Dred Scott or Rosa Parks or try to play a scene straight for sentimental reason, it feels like the film is just plain phony.
At one point in my review of the original “Ted,” I wrote, “Could I have stood to have seen more of the disturbing character played by Giovanni Ribisi? Totally.” I may have misspoken. Donnie is back this time, and he is once again stalking Ted with sinister intent, but he is so much less funny and/or interesting this time, and the final big set piece, all focused around his plan, goes so far off the rails that I was a little surprised. Part of the problem is that it's set against the backdrop of New York Comic-Con, which MacFarlane seems to take as what I assume was very expensive license to make about 4000 pop culture specific jokes in the span of about fifteen minutes. And in that specific run, I think about two of the specific jokes work, and not even in a way that justifies the random overload of pandering “I RECOGNIZE THAT THING!” nerd jokes. I know that's an easy swipe to take at MacFarlane, but I think the first “Ted” did a much better job of picking and choosing which pop culture references to make, leaning more on the specific character comedy than the reference runs. There are a few of them here that are perfectly deployed, like one of the best nods to “the Spielberg look” I've ever seen or a “Lord Of The Rings” specific insult that actually made me like an actor more, but a little of it goes a long way, and by the time the film ends, it's just smothering.
I still think Mark Wahlberg deserves credit for the way he sells Ted as real. This is the Wahlberg I like most, the cheerful dolt, and the more Boston you let him play, the funnier he typically is. Seyfried is certainly likable here, but when you look at how she's written and how Charlize Theron was written in “A Million Ways To Die In The West,” it's another running thread for MacFarlane. She's so cool she'll sit around and get stoned with her man, and nothing phases her, and she's just as dirty as the guys, and that's why she's great. Basically, MacFarlane loves to write “the cool girl” that Amy described in “Gone Girl,” and it's telling that they just wrote the Mila Kunis character out between films because the entire point of her relationship with John in the first film was that she was pushing him towards responsibility. It's explained that their divorce has already taken place, and John's been using it as an excuse not to date at all.
It's also clear that the FX team behind Ted has done amazing work again here, and that Michael Barrett once again has shot the film with a very loose shooting style that helps make Ted feel like an actor, not an effect. MacFarlane can obviously stage and pace comedy scenes, but the more films he makes, the more uneven they seem to be, and the more it feels like he has become too comfortable with certain tricks or moves that undermine the stuff he does well. There are plenty of people who flat out dislike what he does, and I can see why, but even his most ardent supporters are, I would assume, capable to distinguishing his best output from the middling, and “Ted 2” feels to me like a guy who is making the best of a situation he finds creatively dull. He throws so many jokes at the wall that it's inevitable something sticks, but if he wants to work in the Mel Brooks end of the pool and not the Friedberg & Seltzer end, he should be working to make his films smarter and more focused, not scattershot and only sporadically rewarding like this one.
“Ted 2” in in theaters Friday.