Review: Muppets Most Wanted

poster muppets2The Muppets used to be kind of a niche thing. You’d love them or you’d hate them. Whether the movies succeeded, or failed you could rest assured that muppets will be muppets for better or worse. The characters are nothing less than iconic. The personalities of Miss Piggy, Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie and the rest are so defined that any fan with enough multi-colored socks could put on a fairly convincing play. At the very least, there would be no confusing who was who. That’s why its so surprising that professional writers failed to tap into the natural reservoir of character traits and humor and instead tried to rewrite the Muppets’ DNA.

When Jason Segel took hold of the property for the 2011 film, he brought his fan sensibility with him and revitalized the franchise by taking it back to it’s roots, while simultaneously updating the humor for the current film going crowd. The Muppets were more themselves than they had been in decades, and they were still able to keep up in the post The Hangover comedy era. Nicholas Stoller, whose writing contributions include Fun With Dick and Jane and Yes Man cowrote the script and returned for the sequel without Segel’s much needed perspective. James Bobin, the inexperienced director with only some episodes of Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Concords on his writing resume, returned to helm the ill fated project and cowrite the script as well.

It was a mess!  First off, the opening number announces that they are making a sequel.  self referential humor can be very funny if you have the tact, but cynically singing that the sequel is “never quite as good” sets coordinates for an approach that is determined to rise above this accepted truth and truly entertain the way only Muppets do.  Sadly, it is a foreshadowing of the utter hopelessness of the film.  Instead of a straight forward quest rife with gag opportunities and surprising celebrity cameos, The Muppets most Wanted is bogged down by a part heist/ part jail break plot that ineffectively parodies the genres and fails to let the Muppets be Muppets.  The action scenes were ill conceived and the songs were just –BLAH!

There is no reason to see the film if you like the Muppets.  They are mere stuffing in a vehicle that only serves its three stars: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell.  Dominic Badguy (Gervais) is sidekick to an escapee from a Russian prison who uses his likeness to Kermit in order to infiltrate the group and lead them on a European tour that coincides with a series of planned robberies.  The bits between Burrell and Sam (an Interpol and CIA agent respectively) were the closest to being sufficient, but sadly fell to the wayside.  Fey plays the warden of the prison where Kermit is held by mistake.  A bigger mistake is the assumed staying power of a gag that has tough inmates portrayed by the likes of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo prancing around in song and dance numbers.  The lack of skill and sentiment caused the bulk of the film’s humor to be either misplaced or misused, if not both at the same time.  The through line of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship was the only thing consistent with past Muppet ventures, the others are neglected and used only to further the ill conceived plot regardless of (or even in opposition to) their own inherent strengths.  The cameos, a muppet staple, amounted to such and such star appearing on screen for a couple of seconds.  The only real exceptions being, Usher playing an usher, and my favorite, Salma Hayek appearing as a guest on the show where none of the characters can be understood.

By the end of it I felt like the show not only lacked heart, it lacked genuine affection for the material and respect for the Muppet audience.  The sense of humor of the film seems to come at the expense of those who hoped to see a familiar style of comedy with some fresh surprises.  Their arrogance and laziness are at once incompatible and unexplainable.  There are some good laughs to be had here and there, but not enough to make this overwhelming disappointment worth the time.

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Review: The Internship

dvd the internshipThe Internship is a smart collaboration between Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Productions.  It’s intelligently crafted, to the minutest detail, making it yet another pleasurable viewing experience from the director of Date Night and Real Steel.  Worthy of ownership, it was perhaps an easily overlooked movie that might be disregarded as more of the same in a sea of mundane comedies.  With the familiar faces of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn headlining the film you may feel as though you’d seen it before and at the very least, the word fresh is not one that would creep into your preconceptions.

But Levy does with the natural talents of Wilson and Vaughn, what he did for Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and the collaboration turns out wonderfully shaped performances.  The finished product is a perfectly paced, lean comedy that takes advantage of each moment to generate and reinforce positive interest in the story.  The result for the viewer is an engaging experience with plenty of laughs and quotable dialogue that is very re-watchable.  The strength of the story is almost like that of a Pixar movie.  It’s not likely to bring a tear to anyone’s eye by any stretch of the imagination, but it is carefully plotted and the comedy is driven just as much by the ensemble of lovable misfits as it is by the circumstances.

We open up with Billy and Nick, a couple of great salesman getting psyched on the way to a crucial meeting with a client.  They are a confident team who know what they are doing, but the company is in trouble, so the pressure is on.  No time is wasted introducing these guys and getting the audience to empathize,  Within minutes they learn that the company is over and that they are out of jobs.  Rather than take another sales job that will allow them to continue to scrape by, the two decide to jump headlong into a new field created by the technology that rendered their skills obsolete.  They take an internship at Google, where a series of challenges are laid before a variety of teams in a winner takes all race for employment.  Since everyone is much younger and more educated, they avoid Billy and Nick like the plague leaving them to be scooped up with the rest of the losers after all the teams are chosen.  The hostile group of hopeless loners must act like a team in order to survive and find friendship along the way.  It’s not original.  It sounds a lot like Dodgeball if you think about it– or the more recent Monsters University–  But the genius of it is not in the originality of the plot.  All throughout it are elements of many classic comedies, and yet it stands alone as unique, because of what transpires between the bullet points.  It’s funny, it’s familiar, but it’s also new and has a strong identity of its own.  A couple of the best examples is the two or three key stages in the middle act that reveal a lot about the characters and energize the plot; and the sweet, underplayed subplots for Nick and Billy.

I think, what makes the movie work most is that it has heart under the surface, but the focus is always comedy.  There is a kind of slight of hand at play, that I think is mostly due to Levy’s role as director, but also the finely honed sense of comedy Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have their own reputations for.  It goes beyond the clash between cynicism and idealism in the fight for the American dream.  The Internship is sharply focused and deeply felt so that the plot becomes an exercise in fun and frivolity, with a firm spine to carry it through.