Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Rainbow Disconnection


THE MUPPETS

If there is something I hold dear to my heart, it's the memories of The Muppets.  There was The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies (what I call "The Trilogy": The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan), and Muppet Babies.  I figure that Jason Segel has similarly fond memories and given we're around the same age we appear to draw from the same well.  While Segel clearly has a great reverence and love for the Muppets, I am in the minority when I say I don't think he quite understands what exactly the Muppets are (which is not a nostalgia act).   The Muppets, therefore, while having enchanted many people, has one too many flaws to cast a spell over me.

Gary (Segal) and his brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) live their sweet and innocent lives in Smalltown, U.S.A. (which I like to think is a suburb of Smallville, but I digress).  Gary and Walter love each other...and especially the Muppets.  This is especially true for Walter, who finds in the Muppets kindred spirits and being who look just like him (this is an important plot point).  Now ostensibly adults with minds of children, they venture to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Studios.  They find they are a wreck: broken down and forgotten.  While taking a tour, Walter makes a shocking discovery: evil oil magnet Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is plotting to destroy the Muppet Studios to drill for oil.  The only way to stop him is to have Kermit (who had signed the agreement) raise a million dollars.

There's a hitch: the Muppets have been forgotten by this most cynical world and are now passé.  Determined to save the Muppet Studios, Gary and Walter go in search for Kermit.  We find our frog in his mansion, living a quasi-Sunset Boulevard life.  Now, Kermit Des-Frog as I called him decides the best thing to do is to have a Reunion Telethon to raise the money.  Thus, we get a search for the members of the Muppets.  We find Fozzie Bear fronting a "tribute band" (The Moopets), Gonzo as the biggest plumbing magnate in the Rust Belt (yes, that's part of the funny), and quickly we gather all the Muppets save one.  Miss Piggy, the swine Kermit left behind, has moved to head up French Vogue.  Eventually, she does come to join them.

Second hitch: nobody wants to see the Muppets, and no one cares about them.  However, they manage to finagle a two-hour special.  Richman, aware of this, is determined to stop them.  The Muppets then goes for a version of the old Muppet Show, right down to special guest host, that giant of the silver screen, that legend, that icon of stage and screen...Jack Black.  Seriously: Jack Black.  Both Walter and Gary make discoveries about themselves, and we end knowing that Life's A Happy Song.

Now, I'd like you to note something in my recap of the plot.  I managed to go through the entire story without once mentioning the character of Mary, Gary's perpetually waiting girlfriend.  Amy Adams, who plays Mary, once commented to Cosmopolitan Magazine that "people think I'm so innocent, but it's not true" (for the record, I didn't read the article.  That was on the cover). 

Leaving aside I didn't think that of her once you had a child out of wedlock, perhaps Miss Adams might succeed in her efforts to have the public stop thinking she's so innocent by not doing her Enchanted routine that she can do in her sleep.  Her Mary is indistinguishable from Giselle, and while we know Adams can act (three Oscar nominations in a relatively short film career--all for dramas), her Mary at times is either weak (I don't know many women who willingly wait ten years for a man to propose) or stupid (as how easily she keeps the fact that Gary's near-pathological need for Walter so irritates her to herself).

I find that there is a fine, thin line between a character being innocent and a character being stupid.  Mary and Gary are ON that line.  At times, they appear to be thoroughly naive.  Other times, they appear mentally unstable and divorced from reality.  We see this with Gary.  He's suppose to be a sweet and loving man, but did no one else notice how insensitive he is towards Mary (regardless of how useless she is as a character)?  He treats her rather badly, and if this is any indication of their ten year courtship, one wonders why any woman would wait so long for someone as dim as Gary.

A side note: I'm a firm believer that after three years tops, a couple should get engaged or end their relationship.  I don't mean they should marry in three years, but they should be engaged.  After three years, you are no longer 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend'.  You're someone's lover/mistress. 

Again, Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller missed a great deal of opportunities to make The Muppets the tribute they so yearned to make with a nice introduction of these characters to a generation that can know them only through DVDs and merchandising.  Chief among them is with Adams.  Her character isn't necessary to the plot (as I've pointed out) but in regards to her dealings with the Muppets.  If I know my swine (and I think I do), Miss Piggy is at heart a highly insecure being.  She has always been insanely (and I mean that literally) jealous of any woman that comes within ten feet of her beloved Kermie.  Here you have Amy Adams, a most beautiful woman, and despite Piggy's mixed feelings for her frog she doesn't appear the least bit fazed by having someone like Adams near Kermit. 

Another lost opportunity came in regards to the various cameos.  I am loath to compare films, but The Muppets is determined to recall past features such as The Muppet Movie, and since both go for cameo appearances, I figure I would give them the comparison they're dying for.  In The Muppet Movie, you had a wide variety of cameos from big stars (in the case of Orson Welles, in a literal sense...sorry, couldn't resist).  However, unlike The Muppets, they weren't cameos for cameo's sake: they actually HAD something to do with the story. 

It wasn't like Steve Martin or Milton Berle or Edgar Bergen just popped in, looked at the camera, and then left.  By and large they actually had roles that were relevant in the film that involved the Muppets themselves; if Steve Martin appeared, it's because he's playing a waiter (not playing Steve Martin, or even Steve Martin AS a waiter).  There was a wit in having big stars show up in these tiny roles.  In The Muppets, Segel, Stoller, and director James Bobin opted to just throw in stars of varying degrees of notoriety as themselves and leave it at that.

At the telethon scene, you have Kermit say, "Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez," then grow slightly flustered that he had no idea who the chubby little Latino kid that had come with them was.  Goldberg then tells Kermit she was told that there might be a job here, Gomez tells him flat-out she doesn't know who he is, only that her agent told her to come, and the chubby little Latino boy asked if he was one of the Ninja Turtles.

Here, in this scene, we have a neat little package of how The Muppets, in their efforts to echo the sweetness and cleverness of The Muppet Movie, failed totally (and despite how much euphoria my fellow critics emit over it, made The Muppets a bit of a failure).  First, Golberg, Gomez, or the chubby little Latino boy are irrelevant to the plot.  Second, if the Muppets are so passé and forgotten, why would Gomez's agent send her to work with has-beens?  Third, unless you watch or know about Modern Family, you would have no idea who Rico Rodriguez is.  I know critics love Modern Family, but to be honest I've never seen an episode, and if it weren't for all the orgasmic coverage of the show I wouldn't know Rodriguez from a Ninja Turtle.  Judging from The Muppets, Kermit hasn't seen the show either. 

Therefore, most of the appearances of big names are there just for show.  There are a few exceptions, such as Alan Arkin as the Muppet Studios tour guide, but by and large the name performers appear as themselves, and what could have been a great series of small performances are wasted because Segel et. al. opted to just have his friends pop in for a lark. 

I digress slightly to take on the choices of just who is given more featured roles in The Muppets.  I have never understood the idea that Jack Black is some sort of 'comedic genius'.  I find him hopelessly annoying, giving his whole schtick is to make faces and use his girth for yucks.  When he FIRST shows up at a meditation garden who is Animal's sponsor, I didn't find it funny (the idea of Animal trying meditation to control himself...yes, that's clever).  HOWEVER, they decide he's a big-enough "star" to unwillingly host The Muppet Telethon.  Throughout his time on screen, not only did he not make me laugh (which I gather was the point of him showing up) but he has to comment in a near-hysterical manner on everything.  A scene where the Muppets spoof Smells Like Teen Spirit by making it into a barbershop quartet makes Black acts like it's an act of blasphemy. 

Again and again, Segel and Company decide to throw in people sans rhyme or reason.  People may have loved it, but I thought it was all a massive waste. 

Segel knows what he's doing in making Gary this amazingly overgrown man-child with a heart of gold.  Again, his affection for the Muppets comes across, though at times his character veers dangerously into making Gary a complete imbecile rather than just a sweet...kid?  Man with a mind of a child? Nut-job?

Leaving aside the rather creepy idea that humans can give birth to Muppets (were they unconsciously drawing inspiration from the Mud-Blood concepts of J.K. Rowling, I wonder), I wasn't overwhelmed with Walter.  That isn't to say there weren't moments of cleverness with the character: the idea that Jim Parsons would be the human Walter was clever (even though, again, if one didn't see or know about The Big Bang Theory you'd have no idea what made the human Walter so amusing). 

It is fun to see Chris Cooper play it up for the requisite villain.  One is startled to find how well Copper can rap (yes, I said RAP), and I think more moments like these (and a whole lot less Jack Black) would have made The Muppets a much, much better film.

I have another digression when it comes to the story.  FOX News or FOX Business went on some rampage against The Muppets, saying it was some sort of leftist propaganda against big business or oil or something like that.  I suppose if I gave it any thought Segel is probably a lefty like nearly everyone in Hollywood, but I think the FOX people should look at all this with a large grain of salt.  The name itself (Tex Richman) is suppose to be punny, and we're not suppose to take this as seriously as they do.  I wonder if they would be as much in arms over Charles Durning's turn as the fast-food tycoon in The Muppet Movie

I can say that I saw no overt or even covert Marxist messages coming from The Muppets.  Rest easy, FOX. 

Finally, allow me to touch on the songs written by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie.  I'm told McKenzie is another 'comedic genius', but since I've never seen Conchords, I cannot vouch for that.  Again, I'm loath to compare The Muppets to The Muppet Movie, but they want me to.  While The Muppet Movie had a string of memorable songs (Moving Right Along, Can You Picture That, I Hope Something Better Comes Along, Never Before-Never Again, I'm Going to Go Back There Someday, and of course, the haunting and beautiful Rainbow Connection), the only song I recall with any sense of pleasure was the self-consciously sweet Life's A Happy Song.

All the other songs are completely forgettable, though not all bad.  Me Party was pleasant and almost funny, and Pictures In My Head remarkably dark for a story marketed as family fare.  Other than that, the songs are ones people will not remember once The Muppets fades.  After watching The Muppet Movie, I could hum all the songs and felt joy at their memory.  Even after a span of over thirty years, I can still sing parts of all of them.  After watching The Muppets, the only song I could remember was Life's A Happy Song

Even with that song, I always got the sense that McKenzie was mocking the Muppets and their legacy of sweetness with his music.  It seemed a strange irony that while The Muppets celebrates the nostalgia for a pre-CGI world, the score appears to ridicule the same world.  No song captures this better (or to my mind, worse) than Man Or Muppet, a song I always felt was self-consciously stupid in its lyrics (if I'm a Muppet/then I'm a very manly Muppet--how I hate that line).  Truth be told, I though Man or Muppet was the worst song in The Muppets, but obviously, I'm in the minority on that point. 

The Muppets was a hit-and-miss deal for me, and I wavered fast and furious on what to score it.  The fact that I found more things to dislike in it (the weak songs, the fact that Fozzie Bear didn't sound exactly like I remembered him to...no surprise given he was voiced by current Fozzie Eric Jacobson and veteran Fozzie Frank Oz declined to participate in The Muppets, a collection of useless and unnecessary cameos, and the far-too extensive appearance of Jack Black) simply was too much to negate all the positive aspects of The Muppets (the clear affection everyone has for them, Chris Cooper's rap, a comeback...no, a RETURN for the Muppets themselves). 

It certainly was a good try, done with the best of intentions, but for me, as a Muppets fan who has a deep love and affection for them, I was disappointed.  When it comes to The Muppets, I Hope That Something Better Comes Along

DECISION: C-

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