Ted 2 is very funny, in some ways even useful. One hilarious scene will kill terrible suggestion-based shortform improv comedy dead, so thank you, Seth MacFarlane.
It’s also detestable even as it’s charming and ingratiating. The laughs come so often that it’s easy to overlook that this is a bizarre, self-pitying reversal of the white-savior genre: Here, whiteness is victimized. Ted 2 is a tale of oppression. That racist, transphobic, homophobic monster Ted has to go to court to win his civil rights — with a case based on Dred Scott, the Thirteenth Amendment, and how Americans are always slow to grant equal protection to minority populations. In the end, he’s only successful when he convinces a famous black lawyer — played by Morgan Freeman — that he’s a good enough guy to defend. Ted doesn’t do that by changing — being suddenly not a monster. He does it by having Pure Love for that best friend of his, played by Mark Wahlberg.
Ted compares the annulment of his marriage to the injustices suffered by “the fags — I mean, the homos!” He corrects his language, since he’s in court at that moment, but never his heart. The film, like MacFarlane himself, desperately wants two things that should be incompatible: to be the rudest, filthiest, most un-PC thing society will allow, yet also to be embraced and celebrated as good and sweet and decent.
All throughout I wondered: How could people smart enough to craft the movie’s many funny scenes have signed off on a story that is overall so poisonous? (There’s never much indication that the movie is satirizing its lead bear’s understanding of what his minority status means. And I should point out that our chief critic, the great Stephanie Zacharek, in our official review, acknowledges that the film may be indefensible, but persuasively argues for its vitality and hilariousness. Also, yes, I know, if you don’t want to get mad at Seth MacFarlane, don’t watch Seth MacFarlane’s movies and shows. I know. I wanted to skip this one, but it didn’t work out.)
First, let’s establish how nasty this stuff gets. Wahlberg at one point crashes into a shelfful of samples at the sperm bank. He’s covered in the stuff, and the moment’s a well-orchestrated gross-out laugh, much better handled than the half-assed outrages of A Million Ways to Die in the West. But then a worker at the clinic tells him that they’re not in trouble — that those are rejected samples that tested possible for sickle-cell.
Ted yells, “You’re covered in rejected black sperm! Like a Kardashian!”
First off, how is Kanye West a reject? Second, the idea that black sperm is more disgusting than white sperm is baked into the joke, although I’m sure the writers would contest this. Third, MacFarlane’s shock humor often depends on people we know are ignoble idiots saying things the rest of us know to be reprehensible — that we’re laughing at these small-minded Boston chowderheads. But we’re not asked to laugh at the characters’ reprehensibility. No, the joke is the joke — it’s comedy writers’ idea of what’s funny, not comedy writers’ idea of what Boston bros think is funny.
That gag follows a dispiritingly transphobic one of the sort MacFarlane has often been called out for. In fact, he has expressed love and support for the transgender community in recent weeks. Asked about a series of gay-bashing Bruce Jenner jokes on Family Guy, MacFarlane said, “My philosophy is live and let live, and if something makes someone happy, and they’re able to do it — as long as it isn’t hurting anybody — live and let live.”
So why keep the moment in Ted 2 where Ted, disgusted to see that his pal John (Wahlberg) has some sort of gender-bending porn on his laptop, actually shouts, “Chicks with dicks? There are no chicks with dicks! It’s just guys with tits!” That’s followed by an extended set piece where Ted instructs that the only way to be sure that this particular pornography doesn’t come back to haunt John is to bash the laptop into pieces and then sink the remains in Boston Harbor. Live and let live! MacFarlane is saying, in essence, “It’s hilarious that your lives are the most disgusting thing most Americans could possibly imagine, but don’t be thin-skinned or anything — I’m a good guy!”
Then there’s the black characters. Cocoa Brown plays a supermarket cashier who is friendly with Ted and offers him terrible advice — and, with ferocious random hostility, points out white customers and calls them the one slur that the dumbest white people you know complain that they can’t say. There’s no logic to it, and no point, really: It’s just that the film’s one black woman is angry and incomprehensible and a little scary to Ted.
As for its black men? Ted testifies in court that he is a person, not a toy, and therefore is due the rights enshrined in the Constitution. On the stand, Ted is asked if he has a soul; he responds by singing “At This Moment,” an r&b hit from the mid-Eighties. The judge, a black man, leans in and gives Ted a smooth high-five.
So, for Ted, the whitest bear since Snuggles, black women are a source of bewildered discomfort, and black men are there to grant the award of coolness. Croon a white soul ballad most famous for appearing in a Family Ties? Man, who cares if you think black sperm is lesser — you’re down.
The plot mirrors, in many ways, the worries of white people who feel they’re becoming the minority in their own country. Here’s Ted, a pothead Southie lout, having to prove to the state that he deserves to be treated as a full citizen, that his marriage shouldn’t be annulled just because he doesn’t fit the commonly accepted idea of personhood. In the end, of course, the sage lawyer played by Freeman endorses Ted to a jury, but only after first refusing. Ted isn’t likable enough to defend, the lawyer insists at first. But then he’s moved by Ted’s love of John.
Freeman, the voice of American promise and decency, doesn’t get to be funny in Ted 2 — he’s the movie’s problem-solving hand-of-god but also its character witness, there to let us know that it’s not the job of the Teds of the world to grow or change or stop joking that sex with black men is the ultimate debasement. No, it’s Ted’s job to wait around until everyone else decides to love him, whether or not he affords them their full humanity.
There’s a dozen big laughs in this movie: that scene at the improv show; a cameo from a great tough-guy movie star; a montage of forest critters; a great payoff to a joke about Amanda Seyfried’s raw and protuberant eyes; an inspired re-appropriation of John Williams’s cheesiest score. But, lord, the scene where Ted’s feelings get hurt when his pals don’t laugh at his joke about the phrase “un-dick bong” sounding like the name of the president of South Korea? MacFarlane and his writers write the scene so that the joke bombs within the actual world of Ted 2, so that even these chowderheads don’t think it’s funny — dude, if you have to do that much work to make dumb punning assholery justifiable, why not just come up with something that actually funny instead?