Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2015

Ted 2

Ted again

Seth MacFarlane's strangely plot-heavy 'Ted 2' is lazy comedy and sloppy filmmaking

Ted 2
Universal Pictures
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Screenplay: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild
Starring: Seth MacFarlane (voice), Mark Wahlberg, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, John Slattery, John Carroll Lynch and Morgan Freeman
Rated R / 1 hour, 55 minutes
June 26, 2015
(out of four)

If anyone ever wants to attempt a definitive critical exegesis of the collected works of Seth MacFarlane, allow me to suggest the ComicCon sequence in Ted 2 as your analytical starting point. Because therein lies MacFarlane's work boiled down to its essence: a giant depository of random pop-culture references that, by and large, he has no idea what to do with. The convention showroom, lined with costumed devotees, is the physical manifestation of his artistic palette - an endless mass of pop icons and characters, logos and brands and jingles and props and moments immortalized in memory (or carbonite), all just kinda floating around in space, mingling indiscriminately, only rarely deployed with any real purpose.

The synchronicity is almost too perfect. When Ted and the gang arrive at ComicCon (well, the New York variant, anyway) for the film's dramatic climax, it feels like they've reached mecca. This is where they belong. Every MacFarlane movie should end at ComicCon.

But then there's the matter of what he and his co-writers can actually do with all those references, and all that iconic pop imagery, and the answer in Ted 2, even more definitively than usual, is: not much. And look, I'm not immune to the charms of MacFarlane's specific brand of comedy - when he's really firing, that is. The issues have always been consistency and purpose. On the latter issue, he's usually more interested in simply making a reference than in using that reference for actual comedy. Often he mistakes the two. The first Ted included a "flashback" scene that was just a pure replication of the dance scene from Airplane!, which itself was a parody of Saturday Night Fever. In the MacFarlane version, there wasn't a joke. There wasn't a punchline. There wasn't any parody or attempt at parody. There wasn't even any new context. The whole scene was just a lazy jerk-off.

Now, in Ted 2, there is a scene with Ted, the stoner teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane), that directly references John Candy's "Mess Around" car scene from Planes, Trains & Automobiles. And once again, he doesn't actually do anything with the reference. He just recreates the scene (in abridged fashion) and moves on. This reminds me of another Planes, Trains reference, this time on an episode of Family Guy, in which one character recites Candy's entire "I like me" monologue. The "punchline" (can I add a few more quotation marks?) is the character saying, "Movie references!"

In another Ted 2 scene, MacFarlane stages a montage at a library, and the characters recreate the dancing-on-the-railing moment from The Breakfast Club. Because.

I'm not against random references if they're funny. Or interesting. Or surprising. Or bizarre. That one just isn't funny, or interesting, or surprising, or bizarre. (Just to offer an example, let me recall what I think is a very good random pop-culture reference, this one from NewsRadio. Jimmy James (Stephen Root) is in hiding at a suburban house, and in a panic, insists that he feels like doing something desperate. And then we see him slide, in a dress shirt and tighty whities, across a hardwood floor as "Old Time Rock and Roll" plays, recreating the iconic moment from Risky Business. It's both absurd and appropriate, and a perfect deployment of a very specific reference.)

You need look no further than the works of Tina Fey, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright or the Zuckers in their prime for examples of artists who constantly reference pop culture and do so brilliantly. Generally speaking, MacFarlane doesn't have that kind of savvy.

Even with references that he seems to find a use for, the construction seems unusually sloppy this time around, even for him. At one point in the ComicCon sequence, Ted is trying to identify Ribisi's character (who we know is dressed in a TMNT Raphael costume) from among five people in virtually identical costumes. Except, only two are wearing Raphael's red bandana, so we know it's one of those two. Unless there was a "Ted is color blind" joke in there that I missed, it's a completely un-funny setup because we know we only have two options. Wouldn't the visual be exponentially funnier (not to mention more absurd) if every costume in the bunch was inexplicably dressed as the same Ninja Turtle?

To be fair, I can also give you a decent handful of moments in Ted 2 that really do work, and it's no coincidence that each example kind of breaks from MacFarlane's style. The first is a callback to the "Shave and a Haircut" scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, only this time it's a character trying to draw Boston native Ted out (from a display of identical-looking Ted dolls) using "Sweet Caroline" as bait, knowing that the real Ted will have to burst out to shout, "Bah bah bah!" See, that is an inventive way to use a movie reference - and poke fun at Red Sox fans at the same time.

I also appreciate the subtlety of hiring the generally anonymous Michael Dorn, who is only recognizable as Star Trek: TNG's Worf, to play a normal guy who goes to ComicCon and dresses up as, you guessed it, Worf. And the absurdity of John, sitting in a courtroom, looking legitimately panic-stricken when Ted suggests conjuring Beetlejuice. Or, when the characters all arrive in New York, the overly magical introductory music that accompanies it, making fun of the way older movies (and even some newer ones) romanticize a character's arrival in "the big city."

Another fun wrinkle is the inclusion of a character - Amanda Seyfried as bright-eyed lawyer Samantha Jackson - who is completely oblivious to any pop culture, which makes her a foil for Ted and John (Mark Wahlberg), not to mention the whole milieu that surrounds the character. But she would have worked a lot better if the material were stronger; instead, we get oddly warmed-over bits like Ted explaining who Samuel L. Jackson is.

In addition to serving as John's new love interest, Samantha is also key to the plot, which finds Ted suing the government for legal personhood after his wedding to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) is deemed invalid and their attempts to adopt denied. There's also a related subplot, once again involving Giovanni Ribisi's stalker character from the original film; this time he's working for Hasbro, which has designs on stealing Ted and opening up a whole new line of sentient Ted dolls. What's odd about the movie is how bogged down it gets in its plot. So much of the film (which runs for nearly two hours and doesn't have nearly the material to sustain it) feels exceptionally labored. The courtroom scenes have occasional jokes, but are mostly made up of dry speeches that play out like earnest moments from a totally different kind of movie. It doesn't seem like MacFarlane is confident in exactly what he wants to do with those scenes, beyond advancing the story. And the story is ultimately rather unimportant.

Compounding the problem is the simple fact that the comedy the plot does find room for rarely lands. I wasn't a big fan of the first Ted, but it had way more laughs than this one. Ted 2 plays a bit like a bunch of B-sides or deleted scenes - like MacFarlane's version of Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. Maybe this movie, like that one, would have been better served as a DVD special feature.

CUT TO: Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 news team jumping up in the air and shouting, "Yay!"

Movie references!

(Is that how this works, Seth?)


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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