Outside the Lines, by Scott Nye
Robert Warshow famously wrote, “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” The same applies to those who make them. In the quest for the unattainable “perfect film” – it makes us laugh, cry, cheer with joy! It hits all the expected plot points, but dammit, it does them so well – we’ve unconsciously sought a sort of homogeneity. The setting, the topic, the genre can differ, but the worldview should be cleanly presented and our sympathies must be neatly aligned.
Whatever else you want to say about him, Seth MacFarlane does not offer this sort of comfort.
His latest film, Ted 2, sees the stuffed bear (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) go to court to prove he can legally be considered a person, and not property. It is, at times, rousingly humanistic, pleading for the basic progressive cause that all people be treated with fairness and respect…before switching to a scene in which the main characters gleefully throw apples at joggers. It’s absolutely not playing fair. This is, through and through, the work of a privileged white guy with clear admiration and respect for progressive causes, but who still thinks watching animals have sex is funny.
In one scene, Ted and best friend Johnny (Mark Wahlberg) visit a sperm bank. A doctor walks Ted through the storage facility, telling him about the diseases they hope to cure, and all the good work that such institutions help accomplish. If you don’t think that scene ends with Mark Wahlberg covered in semen, topped off with a joke about black people and Kim Kardashian…well, you don’t know MacFarlane. His protagonists aren’t exactly likeable. But we’re also encouraged to root and care for them; they’re not condescendingly set up for us to laugh at, to distance ourselves from. The film aligns our sympathies with these mean-spirited, anti-intellectual, elitist assholes who are also fighting for a noble cause. This structure forces white America to consider our own greed, prejudices, and reasons for taking up noble causes.
These sorts of disparities are not often in play in cinema, but the friction between our base proclivities and our enlightened understanding of fairness and good will is a potent topic for any work of art. By avoiding any attempt to analyze that divide intellectually, instead completely inhabiting it, Ted 2 succeeds where something like the ostentatiously evenhanded Spy fails – it depicts its audience as we are, not as we want to be. Sometimes we’re put-upon victims, but just as often, we’re aggressors.
This is not to say that you, specifically, enjoy watching Mark Wahlberg get drenched in semen, or think it particularly amusing when the gang (which also includes Amanda Seyfried as Ted’s lawyer) picks on a blind guy at a diner after he’s rude to the wait staff. Maybe none of the jokes are funny. They certainly didn’t all land for me. Frankly, if I never have to see someone covered in any sort of bodily fluid, that’d be all right. The most successful jokes were the silliest – Liam Neeson’s nervously buying Trix cereal, Wahlberg accidentally demolishing a coffee table before a big interview, candy being desired and withheld for no reason. MacFarlane’s flat aesthetic heightens their absurdity. The more bigoted humor (the racism, homophobia, sexism, etc.) varies wildly between mocking the prejudice and supporting it. Sometimes it does both at once. Sometimes you can’t tell. And that’s a good thing. Comedy has more and more been expected to actively champion progressive causes. Ted 2 does, far more vociferously than most, but its protagonist also thinks “homo” is the preferred nomenclature, and nobody takes a moment to tell him otherwise. MacFarlane assumes the audience can do that for themselves.