Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane-ish in Ted 2TED 2

Every fan of Family Guy knows that when he wants to, Seth MacFarlane can be really offensive. (I am in no way a fan of Family Guy, and even I know that.) But the biggest problem with MacFarlane's Ted 2 - which is likely to at least occasionally infuriate anyone who isn't a white, straight alpha-bro - isn't that it's offensive; it's that it's too often sincere. This is a movie in which Morgan Freeman, as a benevolent civil-rights attorney, invokes the 16th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation when arguing for the rights of a talking teddy bear, with the scene's moved onlookers and swelling score matching him in earnestness and integrity. My audience, meanwhile, watched and listened to Freeman's impassioned oration in what felt like stunned silence. Can MacFarlane possibly be serious about this - that his foul-mouthed teddy's rights are equal to those of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised human beings? And if he's not serious, why isn't this scene in any way funny?

Nothing kills appreciation of a comedy faster than political correctness, and I don't want to suggest that Ted 2 didn't make me laugh, considering quite a bit of it did. But director/screenwriter/vocal actor MacFarlane's follow-up to 2012's stoner slapstick really is the damnedest movie, because while many of its throwaway bits are hysterical, almost nothing to do with its main storyline works - and that storyline is the one element of the film that MacFarlane appears truly invested in. The gist of the plot concerns the efforts of Ted and his squawking bride Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) to adopt a baby and prove that the supernaturally ambulatory toy is human after all, and MacFarlane and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild pepper their tale with many, many cracks at the expense of blacks, gays, women, and nerds. (The latter group's treatment, interestingly, received the most audibly unhappy reactions at my screening). They even reference 9/11, Robin Williams, and Bill Cosby for comedic shock effect, and cap a scene with Mark Wahlberg drenched in the contents of dozens of sperm-sample containers. Yet I didn't sense any overt hostility in all this. The jokes, from my perspective, were too Family Guy-innocuous/naughty to have any real sting - although I'd no doubt feel differently if I was a viewer of color - and the effect of even the film's nastier asides didn't tend to linger.

Jessica Barth and Seth MacFarlane-ish in Ted 2I did, however, feel stung when Freeman gave that climactic speech, and when Ted proved that he had a soul by weeping over a loved one's presumed corpse, and whenever doleful music played as un-ironic accompaniment to poor Ted's longing for fair treatment by the courts. (It was the height of irony, however, that this movie wound up debuting on the day of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage.) Perversely, Ted 2 is only truly offensive when it strives for "heart" after spending so much time being gleefully heartless. Does MacFarlane really believe that the insult-comic teddy bear he voices is a complex enough character to emerge as a figure of pathos? I'm sure the man has many fine qualities, but on-screen at least, empathy and sense don't yet appear to be among them, and every time MacFarlane goes for legitimate emotion here, the movie grinds to a halt. (This is true even in the sequences of theoretical peril, with the original Ted's Giovanni Ribisi - in one of his more unpleasant portrayals, which is saying a lot - returning with a plan to gut Ted and sell him to Hasbro. It's hard to imagine any viewer not wishing for the removal of Ribisi's entire, momentum-crushing subplot, which would also have eliminated the film's god-awful geek-fight at Comic Con.)

So that's the half of the movie I hated. I could also fashion a half that I really, really enjoyed, but it would have to be stitched together using dozens of random moments that don't really have anything to do with Ted 2's narrative. The opening-credits sequence, for example, is a literal kick(line), with Tony-winning choreographer Rob Ashford orchestrating a dazzling, joyous song-and-dance to Irving Berlin's "Stepping Out with My Baby" - a class act to offset the crass to come. (Later in the film, co-star Amanda Seyfried delivers a lovely rendition of the MacFarlane original "Mean Ol' Moon," a surprisingly sweet campfire lullaby that just might earn its composer an Oscar nomination to sit beside the one earned for Ted's "Everybody Needs a Best Friend." Maybe it's time for MacFarlane - a 2012 Grammy nominee, remember, for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album - to write and direct a bona fide musical.) There are great gags involving the destruction of Wahlberg's porn-suffused laptop and bowls of candy within too-easy reach and Ted's resemblance to Paddington. Wahlberg messed up on high-grade weed is riotous. A perfectly timed Jurassic Park music cue is more so. The Liam Neeson cameo, if possible, is even more so. And while too much of the film is disappointing and the actor's presence here feels almost grossly misapplied, I will forever relish Ted 2 for its lead's initial encounter with Morgan Freeman, and his awed compliment "I think I want to sleep on a bed made of your voice." Finally, somebody said it.

 

Carlos in MaxMAX

A new family melodrama opened this past weekend in which a heroic, traumatized dog is brought to Texas after performing weapons-search duties in Afghanistan, and it's titled Max. Just Max. Which is a little disappointing given that American Sniffer and Mad Max: Furry Road would've been just as appropriate. In any event, it's a terribly well-meaning boy-meets-dog story in which the sullen teen Justin (Josh Wiggins) is forced to care for the beloved pooch belonging to his KIA older brother (The DUFF's wonderful Robbie Amell), and there's unfortunately more going on here than the movie can effectively handle. Beyond the initially aggressive Max adjusting to civilian life and Justin learning to care for others, director Boaz Yakin's outing attempts to make room for wartime combat, an illegal weapons trade, the illegal downloading of video games, the illegal sharing of confidential military intel, a duplicitous Marine, a crooked sheriff, a mildly racist father, a wisecracking best friend, a budding romance, extreme biking, and a mom (Lauren Graham) whose heavy Texas drawl vanishes after her first scene. It's too much, and for an entertainment being heavily marketed to family crowds, I can't be alone in thinking it's too violent. With its climax involving cascades of bullets, an explosion, and a doomed dog - not, thankfully, Max - sailing over a waterfall, the title character may not be the only one who winds up traumatized. (Children and adults at my screening shrieked when someone held a gun directly to Max's face.)

But while the movie is badly contrived and occasionally pretty shameless - the filmmakers go for the throat awfully early, with Max literally throwing himself on his late owner's American-flag-covered casket - it's also, for a work of its type, refreshingly tough-minded. Wiggins, Luke Kleintank, Mia Xitlani, Jay Hernandez, and others scrape the sentimentality off their roles through honest, unfussy assuredness, and Yakin's direction is blessedly light on "Aw-w-w-w!" moments; the Belgian Malinois Carlos, who plays Max, exudes the same complicated dignity that Bradley Cooper delivered for Clint Eastwood. (And that's not a knock on Cooper.) Meanwhile, Thomas Haden Church, as Justin's tough-as-nails Marine-veteran dad, is unerringly fine, and seems to keep the picture in emotional check every time it threatens to careen into schmaltz. The actor may have officially entered the Chris Cooper phase of his career, but I might not miss the former goofball comedian if he keeps elevating dramatic material the way he does in Max - a secular entertainment that finds its greatest strength in a Church.

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