Sunday, June 28, 2015

Un-Bear-Able: TED 2

Less a film, more a long string of failed scenes limply strung along by an offensively puny wisp of story, Ted 2 is the sort of movie you’d never want impressionable youngsters to see. Not simply because it’s relentlessly vulgar and casually mean-spirited, but because they might get the wrong idea about what constitutes a joke. Nothing but bad vibes and cheap jabs, jokes here are lazy swipes at stale targets, insults, cultural references, and mind-in-the-gutter gags spat out in a painful patter with no sense of pacing or timing. It’s stiffly assembled and flatly delivered, a long, punishing excursion filled with lifeless shots and awkward pauses. Lacking even the sliver of imagination and energy that made the first Ted, our middling introduction to the eponymous R-rated sentient teddy bear, this sequel begins with no reason to exist and makes no case for itself.

Ted 2 has desperate desire to offend, nakedly condescending. It shouts out names of recent tragedies (in obvious ADR), insults oppressed minorities at every opportunity, and is wallpapered in casual racism, homophobia, and sexism. An equal opportunity offender only lazily upholds the status quo, without a perspective to make any real points. It’s boring to watching such flailing irreverence, chasing empty shocks towards irrelevance. Writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s comic stylings are recognizable from his rancid Family Guy and flop western spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West. He thinks standing back from his material spouting off random garbage is equivalent to wit, but it’s a bullying approach, smirking and slapping at an audience while talking down to his own characters. And then he asks us to care about their plights.

Unlike its predecessor, which fell back on a predictable man-child comedy structure asking its characters to grow up, this new Ted asks us to love them even though, and often because, they’re unrepentant jerks. Mark Wahlberg returns as the man whose childhood toy became Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), and they proceed to rampage through a movie that has them make fun of black men and gay people, destroy a barn, steal weed, molest Tom Brady, start a fight at New York Comic-Con, and knock over a shelf of samples in a sperm bank without consequences. (No good movie has ever featured sperm bank shenanigans.) All that happens because Ted and his wife (Jessica Barth) want to adopt a baby, but are told they can’t since the bear isn’t legally a person. Makes sense to me, but MacFarlane wants us to be outraged enough to care about a protracted court battle as the uncouth bear decides to fight for his nonexistent civil rights.

Between unfunny tomfoolery and insult comedy, long scenes play out mostly straight as characters earnestly discuss Ted’s consciousness, determined to prove his personhood to a jury. How am I to care about this bear when the movie’s so fundamentally unserious, and he’s totally, irredeemably, purposelessly unlikable? We’re supposed to feel suspense waiting for the verdict, after a plucky young lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) delivers sincere speeches and Ted compares his trials to the plight of slaves (he watches Roots and references Dred Scott) and gays (or, as he tells the court, denying his equal rights “is just like what you’re doing to the fags! I’m sorry—homos”). The joke is that Ted uses a slur and then corrects himself to a different impolite term. The effect is an insult – hurtful words so dismissively tossed off – wrapped in a bigger insult – that anyone expected a laugh out of it. It takes a particular kind of social blindness to make a movie that’s both a metaphor for civil rights battles and an insult to anyone who’s fought for them.

It’s lazy and hateful, with sincerity cut only by stale attempted humor the very definition of “punching down.” By the end, two bullies have dressed up in costume to menace nerds at a convention, a wise old civil rights attorney (Morgan Freeman) tells the jury to remember the Emancipation Proclamation and vote pro Ted, and Jay Leno has appeared as himself pretending to be “gay” in the most awkwardly silent thirty seconds I’ve spent in a theater this year. And I saw Paul Blart 2. MacFarlane shows no desire to shape a scene or whip up momentum. With the deadliest pacing, every gag is dead on arrival. There’s no inner drive, nearly two hours spent just clunking along from one patch of dead air to the next. He takes lazy jabs at Bieber and Kardashians (hardly the freshest, or most deserving, of targets), stops scenes cold for fumbled cameos (poor Liam Neeson), and displays a preoccupation with male virility as if it’s an inherently funny topic.

This movie is superfluously backwards and overwhelmingly dull, too slapdash in its story and comfortable in its hypocritical and unchecked assumptions about what’s funny, as if anyone that’s not a straight white bro is worth pointing out and picking at. But, yes, by all means, let’s respect a stupid teddy bear. Yeesh. It’s agonizingly clear how grating and deadening MacFarlane’s hodgepodge approach is. I think he loves movies – he stages a straight-faced joke-free Busby Berkeley-ish musical number as his opening credits – and maybe genuinely wants to make a case for equality. But he’s too tone deaf to be funny while doing so, or control the real messages his Ted oozes.

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