They break a leg, or would if they could
By Michael O'Sullivan
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011
The Muppets have never been the most loose-limbed performers. Sitting on a person's forearm tends to limit one's flexibility.
In the new movie "The Muppets," however, Kermit and Co. bend over backward to make sure that everyone - and I mean everyone - is happy. How else to explain a movie that includes a juvenile gag about shoes made from whoopee cushions, an ironic reference to "Benson" reruns, and a parade of celebrity cameos ranging from Mickey Rooney to Ken Jeong? (Don't worry, Mom and Dad. Jeong's appearance is a world away from his performance in the "Hangover" flicks.)
For the most part, the contortions are successful. "The Muppets" is both a delightful family film about the Muppets and a winking, self-referential satire about how lame the Muppets are.
How does it manage that trick? By starting from the premise that the Muppets are has-beens. When the film opens, Kermit has disappeared from public view and is living in Howard Hughes-like seclusion; Fozzie Bear is eking out a living in a second-rate cover band called the Moopets; and the ever-volatile Animal is in anger-management therapy with Jack Black. Just about the only one who has landed on her feet is Miss Piggy, who is now editor of French Vogue (with Emily Blunt reprising her "The Devil Wears Prada" turn as Piggy's snooty office assistant).
It's a giggle, and it works a strange kind of magic. You can laugh at them and with them at the same time.
What sets the plot in motion is a visit to Los Angeles by Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams), a pair of Smalltown sweethearts - yes, that's the name of the place they're from - who are accompanied on their trip by Gary's somewhat co-dependent brother Walter. In a twist, Walter isn't played by a person, but by a puppet (voiced by Peter Linz).
Walter is also something of a Muppets groupie. When he arrives in Hollywood, he can't quite accept the fact that his heroes are washed up.
With the assistance of Gary and Mary, Walter sets out to reunite the Muppets for one last show, the proceeds from which will be used to save the decrepit Muppet Studios building from being torn down by an unscrupulous developer (Chris Cooper). Walter has long dreamed of working with the Muppets.
So far, so corny.
What saves "The Muppets" from itself is a sharp eye for just how silly all of this is. Directed by James Bobin (a regular writer and director on "The Flight of the Conchords") and co-written by Segel and Nicholas Stoller (an alumnus of "Strangers With Candy" and "Undeclared"), the film is mordant without being mean and sweet without being saccharine. If falling in love with something built around the exhortation "believe in yourself" sounds like drinking the Kool-Aid, then it's Kool-Aid with a splash of vodka.
If the "The Muppets" is sap, it's sophisticated, self-aware sap. It's hard enough to appeal to today's kids, let alone their parents. If you can make the unmarried, 20-something aunts and uncles laugh, too, so much the better.
One of the funniest scenes in the movie is a musical number in which Gary addresses his own reflection, envisioned as a Muppet caricature of himself. (Gary's worried about not being man enough for Mary, whom he's been dating, without commitment, for 10 years.) At the same time, Walter is shown singing to his reflection, envisioned as a real, live person - and played, in pitch-perfect deadpan, by Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang." (Parsons is a metaphor for Walter's need to become his own person.)
The cinematic risk factor is high. For a minute, "The Muppets" teeters between cheeky "SNL" skit and cheesy homage to old Hollywood. But it pulls off the stunt brilliantly. Like the characters of Gary, a man who's afraid he's been acting like a Muppet, and Walter, a Muppet who aspires to be a man, "The Muppets" is a movie with a highly entertaining identity crisis.