Seth MacFarlane would love to offend you. He built his empire on Family Guy’s race, sex, and bodily function gags, and made the transition to feature films with such bits steroid-ed up for the R rating. And his third film and first sequel (bad stats, those), Ted 2, includes these gags:
- Ted pronounces, on the subject of trans porn: “There are no chicks with dicks, only guys with tits!”
- Ted sings a soulful cover of “At This Moment” while testifying at his trial, prompting an objection that the African-American judge overrules in soul-song before giving Ted five.
- In a discussion of the trial’s central premise — that Ted, the talking teddy bear magically brought to life, is not a person but “property” — Ted’s wife says property is “just a word.” Their sassy black co-worker snorts, “You better ask my ancestors!”
- The same character refers to a pair of white parents as “those two white niggas over there.” Twice! (After the second time, Ted asks, “You said it twice, is that an actual phrase?”)
- A trip to a sperm bank ends with Mark Wahlberg covered in samples deemed unusable due to sickle cell. (Don’t ask.) Ted laughs, “You’re covered in rejected black guy sperm. You look like a Kardashian!”
- Ted loses his cool in the courtroom and declares, “This is exactly what you been doin’ to the fags — sorry, the homos!”
- A running gag about Amanda Seyfriend’s penis-shaped bong pays off with Ted scurrying off to find a “non-dick bong,” to which he jokes, “Y’know, that’s the name of the South Korean president!”
But here’s the thing: Ted 2 is betting on sites like this making lists like that, and complaining about how retrograde MacFarlane’s humor is. The “offensive” jokes that pop up every once in a while in Ted 2 aren’t social satire, or good gags, or even particularly vicious — they’re a gimmick, taunting, trollery. Offensive is MacFarlane’s #brand, and if there’s any doubt about it, look at how many of those jokes appear in Ted 2’s trailers (and how disproportionately that percentage represents the number that actually appear in the movie). Universal is selling MacFarlane as Mr. Un-PC Button-Pusher, yet his brand of racism/transphobia/homophobia is so transparently a pose, it doesn’t have any teeth, for good or ill; he’s like the uncle at family dinners who only keeps making Mexican jokes because he knows they piss you off.
Really, what’s most offensive about Ted 2 isn’t the smirking “black jokes” and the like, but the somewhat startling amount of screen time MacFarlane spends being syrupy, self-important, and (God forbid) taking his ridiculous “plot” seriously. He actually sees Ted’s battle for personhood as fodder for ponderous, string-backed speeches — including a closer, from Morgan Freeman of all people, that invokes the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment with a straight face, as though they’re making some kind of Important Statement. He tries to invest the Ted/Wahlberg relationship with legit pathos (including, swear to Christ, a death scare), which includes trotting out poor, twitchy Giovanni Ribisi for yet another unfunny subplot. I get being slavish to the original, but c’mon. There’s a sweaty desperation to the movie, which plops into theaters barely a year after MacFarlane’s last picture bombed; it feels like it was written in an afternoon, and not a long one.
And when he’s not wrecking his picture’s comic momentum and pacing with that stuff, MacFarlane falls back on what you’d expect: witless reenactments of scenes from other movies. By the time he hits the third-act sequence that goes from Planes, Trains homage to Jurassic Park homage to Three Amigos homage in about five minutes flat, he’s stopped being a filmmaker; he’s the annoying guy from IT who just spouts movie quotes all day.
Such “parodies” are undoubtedly the result of MacFarlane fancying himself another Mel Brooks, an influence made all too clear by last year’s Blazing Saddles-style Western comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West (which, full disclosure, this viewer kind of liked). But Saddles — written, lest we forget, not only by Brooks but by a crew of great comedy writers, including Richard Pryor — is a master class in how to do hot-topic social satire, full of lessons that MacFarlane clearly, painfully hasn’t learned. Take, for example, Sheriff Bart’s first stroll through town, in which he tips his hat at a sweet-looking elderly woman and purrs, “Mornin’, ma’am. Ain’t it a lovely mornin’?” And, without skipping a beat, she barks back, “Up yours, nigger!” But later, after Bart saves the day, the woman returns with an apple pie as an apology and a thank you, prompting a warm reconciliation. And after she leaves, she knocks on his door again, to ensure that “you’ll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you,” to which he immediately replies, “Of course.”
It’s a three-part joke, pushing past the incongruity of that word coming out of a sweet old lady’s mouth and into a stinging little commentary on the verrrry slow speed with which cultural attitudes and public acceptance shift. And in a MacFarlane movie, the joke would end with the “up yours” line. In one scene of Ted 2, Wahlberg and Ted get their kicks by going to an improv theater and shouting out “sad suggestions” for improvisations (they include 9/11, Bill Cosby, Ferguson, and Charlie Hebdo). It’s one of the few funny scenes in the movie, but also a fairly efficient summary of MacFarlane’s comic ethos: shouting out offensive topics in the dark, as though their mere utterance qualifies as the joke.
Ted 2 is out Friday.