Saturday, December 24, 2011
It has been 12 years since The Muppets last graced theaters with Muppets in Space (there were two telefilms). For those of us that witnessed that uninspired debacle, it was a good thing they decided to take a break instead of continuing a creative decline in the post-Jim Henson era. The Muppets have now returned to theaters and thankfully the writing team of Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller has come up with a wholly original approach to the material that manages to mix sentiment, nostalgia, and humor with great success.
The movie opens in a hopelessly optimistic place called Smalltown, where Gary (Jason Segel) and his puppet brother Walter have grown up as huge fans of the Muppets, with Walter dreaming of becoming a Muppet one day. As adults, they travel to California with Gary's super sweet girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and visit the now defunct Muppet studios. Walter stumbles upon a plan by an evil oil executive (Chris Cooper) to take the studio from the Muppets unless they can raise $10 million. Gary, Mary, and Walter convince Kermit to get the gang back together to put on a show to raise enough money to save the studio.
The whole plot is a great conceit that allows the movie to work in two ways. First, it provides a pretty simple and effective structure as they help Kermit convince each of the Muppets to return, allowing us a chance to see what each of them are up to currently (my favorite being Fozzie Bear's sad nightclub act). It evokes memories of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney films of the 40s where they would put on a musical act to raise money for some worthwhile cause. Rooney even makes a cameo appearance in this film.
Also, the plot is a meta statement on the real world state of the Muppets. They are yesterdays news. The TV show and films that were so popular in the 70s and early 80s have mostly faded from the memory of modern audiences. There is much talk in the film about wondering if they can stay relevant in the current cynical age. It is this angle that will really appeal to adult audiences who grew up watching the Muppets and would like to see them at their best once again.
Thankfully, they are at their best. Segel and Stoller do a solid job of writing great jokes for these characters. They have a ton of fun taking humorous stabs at Hollywood and messing around with genre conventions, while embracing them at the same time. Since none of this is taken seriously, they never write themselves into a corner as they've set up a world where anything can happen, with one of my favorite jokes being the ability to travel by map. It all fits nicely into the offbeat sensibility that has always worked for the Muppets.
The human characters don't rate very highly, despite the clear appeal of people like Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and Chris Cooper. However, the film is populated with amusing cameo performances by stars willing to poke fun at themselves, including a hilarious turn by Jack Black where his own comic persona works against him as he cannot get people to believe he has been kidnapped. The best new character is the earnest puppet Walter, who makes for a great addition to the Muppet cast.
The film is populated with some solid song choices, reaching a sentimental high point with Kermit's performance of the brand new song "Pictures in My Head" and the classic "Rainbow Connection". You'll even get to hear a former Oscar winner rap in an absolutely surreal, but definitely hilarious scene. Segel, Stoller, and director James Bobin have brought the Muppets back, and they've managed to do it in a way that embraces sentiment and makes fun of it at the same time.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 10:09 AM
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
In my review of The Ides of March, I noted that despite the missed opportunities and overall disappointment with that film, it was still refreshing to see that George Clooney was an A-list actor that made interesting choices in his projects instead of settling for the typical Hollywood blockbuster. His decision to star in Alexander Payne's latest character based dramedy The Descendants is yet another example of this, and thankfully it is a far more successful effort. Freed from the constrains of directing a play adaptation, here Clooney gets to focus solely on his character and the result is one of his best film performances.
You'd think Matt King (Clooney) was living a great life. After all, he has a decent amount of money and is sitting on top of a wealthy inheritance. He has a good job, a wife and two daughters. Also, he happens to live in Hawaii, where he was born and raised. we soon learn in The Descendants that Matt's life is actually in a stunning tailspin. Marital relations have been strained for some time and now his wife has suffered a tragic speedboat accident that has left her in a coma. Now he has to take care of his children, a task he has very little experience at. Further complicating matters is when his rebellious teenage daughter returns home with a secret about her mother.
Alexander Payne has always had a great gift at precise character study and this may be his best effort yet on that front. Matt King makes for a well rounded, fascinating, funny individual. He's got some difficult issues going on and ocassionally goes a bit too far in taking people to task, but the audience is with him the whole time. It's not even simply a case of George Clooney's natural charisma in front of the camera, though that certainly helps, but also Payne (and Clooney's) understanding of how to portray Matt as a complicated everyman that is entirely believable and also supremely entertaining. It's a balancing act and Payne once again nails it.
The film also gets it right with many other characters, with Shailene Woodley's terrific performance as Matt's angry teenage daughter Alex a particular standout. She starts off as a seemingly stereotypical brat filled with teen angst, but quickly becomes her father's biggest ally. The way the film handles Alex's friend Sid is also a welcome surprise, starting off as a typically dimwitted surfer, but eventually shown as a genuinely nice guy who has some surprising depth. All of this is achieved without Payne ever betraying the essence of the character. Robert Forster as Matt's gruff father in law, Judy Greer as a woman he meets on vacation, and Beau Bridges as Matt's cousin all have their own memorable moments as well.
Payne's astuteness for character study and development wouldn't mean much if he didn't know how to tell a story. The Descendants doesn't follow the rhythms of your typically Hollywood plot. It flows naturally, with emotional high and low points not coming at places you would normally see in a narrative. He knows how to end scenes at the right places and take them in directions that you wouldn't expect (a great example is during a meeting with his cousin, where Payne avoids unnecessary melodrama). He even manages to weave an environmentalist theme that never once feels distracting or out of place. Thanks to Payne's refreshing take on characters and plot progression, not to mention his fabulous cast, The Descendants is a funny, emotionally rewarding journey to Hawaii.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 4:16 AM