Sunday, April 29, 2012

The End of the Rainbow

Y'know, I wanted to like the new big screen revival of The Muppets (2011, directed by James Bobin). Check that, I wanted to love it. This is part of my masochistic relationship with The Muppets dating back to my early childhood. In the 1970s, the Muppets could seemingly do no wrong, whether it was their occasional appearances on talk shows, their interesting and seriously weird one-off specials like The Bremen Town Musicians or Emmit Otter's Jug Band Christmas, or the glory of The Muppet Show, which is one of the most creative television shows ever mounted. I haven't liked any of the movies, though. Not a one. This makes me sad, because, as I say, I want to love them. Such is my affection for the characters that I give them the benefit of the doubt with each new effort and they burn me every time. It disturbs me, too, to think that the only "Muppet" movie I actually like is Peter Jackson's scabrous parody, Meet the Feebles, and that movie, let me tell you, is kind of a travesty. So when the Muppets returned to the screen after a twelve year layoff, I was game. Maybe the long interval since the last film would yield a creative rebirth. Alas, it wasn't to be.

The story follows brothers Walter and Gary. Walter, born to be a muppet, it seems, dreams of meeting his television idols. Gary, born to be a mensch, it seems, dreams of marrying his longtime sweetheart, Mary. For their tenth anniversary as a couple, Gary invites Mary on a trip to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he also invites Walter, with the intention of fulfilling Walter's dream of seeing the Muppet Studios. Mary is not amused. Once they get there, they discover that the Muppet Theater is a run-down derelict and the studios themselves have fallen into disuse. Walter overhears the plans by a rich oilman named Tex Richman to buy the studio, raze it, and drill for oil. This horrifies Walter, and he vows to get the Muppets themselves to protect their legacy. He eventually meets Kermit the Frog, and soon, Kermit is getting the band back together for a telethon to raise the money to execute the buyout clause in their "Rich and Famous" contract. But Tex Richman isn't going to roll over for the Muppets and moves to thwart their telethon...

This is a Muppet movie with no Jim Henson and no Frank Oz. It's weird that you can feel so keenly the absence of two personalities who never actually appeared on film in the Muppet movies, but there you are. There's some animating spark that's absent here, in any event, and no Henson and no Oz is a likely reason for that. But that doesn't explain my indifference to the other Muppet movies, on which Henson and Oz were integral creative forces. I think the key to this is provided in the actual text of this new movie, in which the big, Oscar-winning show stopper is a song called "Man or Muppet." In the film, this is emblematic of the crisis of identity suffered by both Gary and Walter (ostensibly non-muppet characters, even though Walter is totally a Muppet). But it's emblematic of the broader problem with the Muppet movies, too. The Muppets have always been at their best when they've existed in worlds of their own rather than in an ostensibly "real" world, and it was always funnier to see human celebrities enter the Muppet world back on the old Muppet Show than it is to watch Muppets interact with the world of "real" humans. This new movie throws this into stark relief because a big chunk of it is set in the Muppet Theater as the Muppets stage a revival of The Muppet Show. This part of the movie works like a charm. The rest? Fozzie doing a lame act in Reno? Gonzo becoming a plumbing magnate? Scooter working for Google? None of that works. The movie spends too much time on the romance between Amy Adams's Mary and Jason Segal's Gary, too, which this audience member couldn't give much of a hang about. Amy Adams, it should be noted, belongs in musicals, but she doesn't belong in this musical.

Much the same thing can be said about Chris Cooper. He's a fine heavy when he's in the right movie, but he seems...completely wrong, frankly, for this movie, especially given the post-modern self-reference built into his character (rather than laugh maniacally, he simply says "maniacal laugh", which is one of the movie's flattest jokes. Watching Cooper launch into a rap about how evil he is is also distracting. And Segal? He's a fine comedic actor, but he needs better material because he doesn't have movie star charisma (something that also sticks out like a sore thumb when you set him next to Amy Adams, who does have it).

One of the most awkward things about The Muppets has always been the contemplation of the relationship between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. This relationship has always tested the boundaries of good taste, especially in an entertainment intended for kids. The new movie trumps this by inviting the audience to contemplate the genealogy of Gary and Walter and how it resulted in a normal leading man and a Muppet in the same family. When the opening credits of the movie, in which their lives growing up are put into a nostalgic flashback, I was already thinking, "Wait! What?" Not five minutes into the movie, and the spell was already broken, never to be cast again.

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