Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: TED 2

I bet Seth MacFarlane is one of those guys who has multiple groups of friends who don't know eachother, i.e. "the movie friends," "the neighborhood friends," "my smart friends," "my slob friends," etc. It's somewhat common among "self-made" creatives to begin with, and it'd make sense given the way his TV shows, cartoons and films all feel pulled between competing instincts - all of them sincere, but none of them really compatible. By all indications, he appears enormously self-satisfied with his ability to geek-out about Boston sports teams, STAR WARS minutiae, the Golden Age of dance-musicals and Rat Pack ephemera; but creatively the influences have yet to fully coalesce.

TED 2, like TED and FAMILY GUY before it, careens back and forth between gooey sentiment, bro-comedy raunch, "edgy" black-humor, geek-culture reference-drops, Boston neighborhood-scene deep cuts and "ironic" racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Taken as a set of sketches all framed around the same set of characters, it mostly worked the first time out - but TED 2 makes the Comedy Sequel mistake of assuming that an emphasis on plot and the mechanics of the central joke (re: "How does Ted work, anyway?") will make a satisfactory replacement for jokes that got used-up in Part I. There are some genuine howlers, and the main back-and-forth between John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (MacFarlane) still works, but the law of diminishing returns is firmly in place.

In case you missed it, the original TED had a killer comedy premise: Fashioned as a sequel to a non-existant Disney/Amblin-style "my magical buddy" movie, it took the "Help! My slovenly/immature best pal from my youth is holding back my personal adult development!" buddy-comedy subgenre to its logical extreme: As a child, John wished upon a star and brought his Christmas teddy bear to life... and now both boy and bear are 30-something Bostonian layabouts obsessed with weed, beer, bad movies/TV and avoiding adulthood at all costs.

As TED 2 opens, Ted has married his girlfriend Tami-Lynn not long after a down-in-the-dumps John has permanently split with his love-interest (Mila Kunis) from the original... which basically makes most of the plot of Part I meaningless, but it's a comedy sequel so that comes with the territory. The plot-proper gets going when Ted and Tami-Lynn's unsuccessful attempt(s) to have a baby inadvertently trigger various engines of government to realize that, though it has been treating the living stuffed-animal like a person all this time (John revealed Ted to the world back in the day, and by now the world is no longer impressed by his existance)... legally, he isn't. This leads to everything from Ted's job to his credit to his marriage to be nullified, and sets the duo on a quest to challenge the law with the aid of a neophyte Civil Rights attorney (Amanda Seyfried.) "Where do you even get a lawyer? Everyone we know makes sandwiches," observes Ted in one of the more winning lines.

There's not much structure to be had here, since everything is in service of setting up "bits." The baby-making misadventures, which find Ted and John re-enacting an ancient FAMILY GUY routine and attempting to manually steal sperm from Tom Brady, goes on too long while the court case (which you'd think would be the focus) breezes by en-route to a road-trip sequence so Ted can do jokes outside of the Boston milieu. Act 3, just like last time, droops for an obligatory villain scheme (now that Ted is legally "property" again, Hasbro wants to abduct him for an experiment in mass-marketing) and maudlin sentiment.

That last part, the sentiment, is what's more weirdly prominent this time: as Ted and others namecheck Dred Scott, Slavery, gay-marriage and so forth as precedent/parallel for his personhood quest; it at first seems like MacFarlane is aiming high for a send-up of the "fantastical metaphor" message-movie genre, but nope - it becomes clear that we're supposed to take it as straight (righteous, even) when Ted angrily stands up in court and protests: "Ah, dammit! Y'see? This exactly what you're doin' to the f*gs!!!" It's a bizarre miscalculation, to say the least.

Still, it at least has a higher laff-to-dud ratio than McaFarlane's previous project, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, but it also suffers from the same set of issues: The pattern beginning to emerge with MacFarlane's live-action work is that the elaborate" setpiece" gags (with the exceptional of the exceptional "Flash Gordon Scene" from the firs TED) either land soft or not at all, while the small observational material stands up a lot better. A gonzo exchange between Ted and a certain celebrity guest about Trix is a riot, there's a repeat-gag about office candy-dishes that feels swiped from peak-period Woody Allen and a pitch-dark bit about heckling an improv comedy troupe with sad suggestions has no right being as funny as it is. But meanwhile, a massive slapstick sequence involving a brawl in a comic-book covention ("Ha ha! Character X is beating up Character Y! Get it!!??") sounds like a terrible Kevin Smith joke from the 90s and plays like an even worse Kevin Smith joke from now. On the other hand, I did laugh when a pair of cult-TV luminaries from the supporting cast showed up cosplaying their "actual" famous characters.

Problematic or not, MacFarlane is a substantial talent (how he's resisted just making a full-on musical yet I have no idea) and I do think he's got a classic comedy in him yet - but TED 2 isn't it.