Seth MacFarlane is the king of frat boy comedy, a spray-tanned bro turned Hollywood mogul who makes fun of everyone, yet always seems to be most fiercely defended by young white men who want to know why everyone else won't just loosen up a little, man, it's FUNNY. MacFarlane has built an empire off of a particular type of humor — scattershot and rapid-fire, rife with random cutaways, pop culture references, and an overwhelming certainty that being shocking is the same thing as making a joke. It's an approach that made him a billionaire with his multiple animated series, an awkward leading man in A Million Ways to Die in the West, and, in 2013, a miscast Oscar host — though admittedly, he's got some august company there.
Basically, it doesn't matter if you can't stand Seth MacFarlane, because Seth MacFarlane doesn't need you to. He has his fandom. It's dedicated. It's big. He has accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of becoming a celebrity animator. He has dated Daenerys Targaryen. He has recorded and released two albums of big band music. Even if you do not like Family Guy, as I do not, you have probably seen at least a dozen episodes, as I have, because it is essentially unavoidable courtesy of syndication and its continuing run on Fox. So when it comes around to Ted 2 — which, like its 2012 predecessor, is about the adventures of a Boston man named John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and his foul-mouthed living teddy bear Ted (voiced by MacFarlane, who's also the directer and co-writer) — it feels exhausting to even begin digging into its morass of would-be offensive jokes about race, gender, or homosexuality.
Ted 2's sporadic need to provoke is the worst aspect of a movie that is, against all odds, sweet-centered and sometimes very funny. That compulsion is reminiscent of a child who once made a group of grown-ups laugh by running around pantless, and so kept it up, growing into an adult who whips his junk out all the time at parties in hopes it's still hilarious. On that note, consider this tale of two penis jokes. One involves genitalia-free Ted's attempt to have a baby with his bride Tami-Lynn McCafferty (Jessica Barth) by sneaking into a sleeping Tom Brady's room to steal his sperm with the help of John, who actually has performance anxiety about giving his football hero an adequate unwilling handjob. When the two lift the blankets, a Pulp Fiction suitcase–style glow emanates out from his apparently magnificent johnson.
It's a laugh! There's buildup, and there's a payoff. Which you can't say about the movie's ongoing gag about how every search on the internet leads to "black cocks," a weird instance of empty goading that goes nowhere and is one of multiple examples of the movie leaning on race or sexuality for some hoped-for jolt. They're not mean-spirited jokes so much as breathtakingly lazy and half-written — like the bit about Guy (Patrick Warburton) and his boyfriend Rick (Michael Dorn) attending New York Comic Con in costume (take a guess) in order to beat up attendees. It's not really a joke about geeks, and it's not really a joke about confounding expectations of gay men — it's just incoherent and sour.
The trouble with Ted 2's "no one is spared" broadsides, beyond the fact that it's the kind of approach only Don Rickles has ever pulled off, is that the only characters MacFarlane actually feels for are John and Ted. They're idiot stoner dirtbags with an abiding affection for each other, and the fondness the movie has for them and their friendship is real and, yes, appealing. The scenes in which they just hang out and banter are the best in the movie, aside from the random one in which Liam Neeson comes into Ted's grocery store. Ted 2 works when the jokes are in some way on its heroes — as in the unexpectedly hilarious exchange about F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the sequence about how the pair spend their Tuesday nights.
Guileless, lovable moron is the best sort of role for Wahlberg, who revels in the movie's Boston-based jokes and has easy, consistent chemistry with his computer-generated co-star. The first Ted put Mila Kunis in the thankless role of demanding John grow up and get some distance from the adorable-crass bear that was the movie's whole reason for being. She's gone by Ted 2, having divorced John, and Amanda Seyfried appears in her place as the new lawyer helping Ted with his personhood case. She gets to smoke pot and shoot the shit with the boys, and this time, at least, the movie doesn't set up a divide in which romantic relationships are the death of male friendships.
That personhood case, in which Ted goes to court to prove he's not property and that he deserves the rights of any human, is the central example of how the movie's aim is nowhere near sharp enough to draw the comparisons it does. The storyline is forever teetering on the verge of disaster, throwing in references to Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, including a scene in which Ted watches Roots and exclaims, "That's just like me!"
It is not just like him, because he is a magical stuffed animal and slavery was a real historical atrocity. Ted 2 maintains just enough distance to suggest it's aware that Ted's comparisons of himself to oppressed minorities are inane while also being sincerely felt by the character. But it's a close call, the humor so haphazard that it actually takes a slur-filled line to clarify the film's place. When the legal battle takes a turn against Ted, he yells, "This is exactly what you been doin’ to the fags!" and then catches himself, clarifying, "Sorry, the homos!" It's a potentially ugly joke, except that it's not presented as a joke at all, because Ted clearly means no slight by it — he's ignorant but genuine in reaching for what he thinks of as more appropriate phrasing.
Ted 2 is not a comedy about how the loss of a talking teddy bear makes its characters think they understand persecution, but there are moments where it's almost that movie. There are moments where it verges on a sly poke at people who've never previously thought about systemic oppression suddenly calling it out when something bad happens to them. Then it goes back to being a movie about a pot-smoking bear who makes dick jokes and lives (spoiler) happily ever after. It'll probably be a big hit.