Friday, March 21, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted: Sophomore slump

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: suitable for all ages, despite a truly meaningless PG rating

By Derrick Bang

At 112 minutes, this return visit with the Muppets is too long.

Director/co-scripter James Bobin starts well, with a droll song-and-dance opener that cleverly cites the various mistakes and shortcomings that plague most sequels ... and then, as this film progresses, he succumbs to almost all of them.

Kermit isn't at all sure about the wisdom of signing a contract with the smarmy Dominic
Badguy (Ricky Gervais), but the rest of the Muppets cast aside any doubts after
hearing about a planned European stage tour. What could possibly go wrong?
For the most part, Bret McKenzie’s songs are lyrically witty and staged in a manner that plays to the well-known character quirks of the large Muppet cast. Wry, Muppet-ized send-ups of classic tunes also prompt a giggle, whether Allen Toussaint’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running” or the iconic theme from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On.”

The problem, eventually, is sheer music overload ... particularly when we factor in nods to Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Wagner, “The Rainbow Connection” and an entire production number lifted whole cloth from A Chorus Line.

Too much music. Way too much music.

Although Muppets Most Wanted is (more or less) propelled by a core plotline, the script — Bobin shares credit with Nicholas Stoller — too frequently feels random and unfocused, as if bits were being concocted on the fly.

It would appear that star Jason Segel had much to do with the success of 2011’s The Muppets, since he also co-wrote that screenplay with Stoller. That predecessor had two solid storylines: The re-assembling of the Muppet troops supplied a great first act, after their long big-screen absence, but the film’s heart came from the unlikely relationship between Segel’s Gary and his Muppet “brother,” Walter.

Muppets Most Wanted lacks that softer side. It’s little more than a series of songs, sight gags and comedy sketches: a format that worked quite well during the half-hour installments of television’s The Muppet Show, back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but wears thin here and — dare I say it? — grows a bit tedious. Even dull.

And, judging by the increasingly restless behavior of the children present at last weekend’s preview screening, even they got bored. Not a good sign.

The story opens directly on the heels of the previous film, with Kermit and the gang contemplating their next move, after having saved their beloved theater from a greedy oil tycoon. Their new agent, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), suggests striking while the iron is hot, which means embarking on a world tour.

Kermit is a bit dubious, particularly when he sees how Badguy spells his name, but the silver-tongued agent insists the name is French, and pronounced bawd-gee (hard “g”).

Ah, but Kermit should have trusted his instincts. In fact, Badguy is working with Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog, who has just escaped from a Siberian gulag. Worse yet, Constantine is a dead ringer for Kermit, aside from a prominent beauty mark that can be concealed with green make-up. One nefarious snatch later, Constantine has replaced our amphibian hero, and poor Kermit is “returned” to that same gulag ... from which Warden Nadya (Tina Fey) guarantees he’ll never escape.

Constantine’s “disguise” fools most of the other Muppets, who remain none the wiser. The two exceptions are gentle Walter, understandably puzzled by the faux Kermit’s strange accent and stranger behavior, and the drum-happy Animal, who immediately senses the presence of a “bad frog.” But Walter is too insecure to voice his suspicions, and nobody ever listens to Animal.

The subsequent world tour is conveniently staged to play theaters immediately adjacent to famed museums, where Constantine and Badguy hope to assemble a series of relics that will provide the means for their ultimate desire: to steal London’s Crown Jewels. And once the dust settles, the Muppets — and Kermit — will take the rap.

The early-round heists attract police attention, in the form of Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell, with a deliberate Inspector Clouseau-esque affectation) and Sam Eagle, the CIA’s best and most trusted agent. Naturally, Sam doesn’t think much of Jean Pierre’s snooty European manner, while the latter finds Sam’s cock-sure American arrogance equally annoying.

Jean Pierre’s lackadaisical approach to solving crime — and his lengthy lunch breaks and holidays — are a cute running gag.

The story subsequently divides its time between the two parallel narratives: Constantine and Badguy infiltrating museums under the fuzzy noses of the unsuspecting Muppet troupe, playing shows to unexpectedly full houses; and Kermit reluctantly making the most of his incarceration in Siberia, by mounting his own stage production with the other gulag prisoners.

It’s not easy being green.

The extended gulag segments are the film’s most obvious case of bloat, particularly when the prisoners — led by Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo — launch into a full-blown rendition of “I Hope I Get It,” from A Chorus Line. Sure, it’s funny, but that’s not the point; it’s not Muppet-y enough, and we’d much rather be spending time with the gang, back in Europe.

Indeed, it could be argued that many of the Muppets are overlooked in their own film. Miss Piggy hogs the spotlight as usual, but Fozzie Bear and Gonzo are shunted aside in favor of Constantine’s various impersonatory antics. Sure, we spot many familiar faces in the background — Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, the Swedish Chef, Bobo the Bear, Pepe the King Prawn, Statler and Waldorf — but only as a token presence.

Bobin seems to have forgotten that Kermit and Miss Piggy lead a large and varied repertory company of players, all of whom have important roles to play. Instead, most of the “lesser” Muppets are relegated to eyeblink cameos along the lines of those granted the impressive roster of human celebrities: Christoph Waltz, Tony Bennett, Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek, James McAvoy, Chloë Grace Moretz, Stanley Tucci, Céline Dion, Tom Hiddleston and several dozen more.

So many, in fact, that the constant refrain of “spot the star” becomes quite distracting: definitely a case of Rowlf’s tail wagging the dog.

The three primary human stars are mostly fun, starting with Gervais’ scheming Badguy. Gervais gets considerable mileage from his insincere smile and faux geniality; he’s hilariously disingenuous, and the epitome of a glad-handing cad. Burrell does a much better Peter Sellers than Steve Martin did, and I wish Burrell could have starred in the two recent Pink Panther updates; I’m sure the results would have been better.

Fey’s attempt to make Nadya “stern” is funny by itself, since she looks about as menacing as Scooter. But later efforts to amplify Nadya’s character are less successful; her “secret” desire for stage musical stardom doesn’t quite work, nor does her growing fondness for Kermit. These plot hiccups are clumsy and forced, and Fey doesn’t seem to know what to do with them ... nor does she get any help from Bobin.

But it all comes back to our emotional involvement, as viewers, and Bobin never makes us care ... certainly not the way we did in the previous film.

Ultimately, this sequel ain’t got no heart, nor can a unifying whole be found amid all these disparate parts.

Bobin should have paid a lot more attention to the message found within that opening song.

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