Thursday, November 24, 2011

Film Review: "The Muppets" (***1/2)

"Don't you remember? We built this city. We built this city on rock and roll!"

I'm probably the last person you'd have predicted a response such as this from, especially given my track record over the past year. With "X-Men: First Class", "Super 8", and "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" coming and going with only gaining dissatisfaction in return, it's definitely been a cynical year for cinema, at least from where I'm sitting. There's the inappropriate expectation that what the audience wants is simple spectacle, rather than excitement. It's hard to remember the last time a mainstream feat managed to raise the hairs on my spine with general thrills, and that absence has not escaped me. It would take a great deal of digging to hit the oil that the Muppets are digging for, to use a hint of intended irony.

The first moments of the film don't really get off to a brilliant start, and it really put me back in the mood I've been in for the past several months. The old-style home video reels phasing into the present day was an early sign that this wasn't gonna be the reunion I wanted, and in a few ways it wasn't. What I wanted was a fantasy, and the further the film progressed, the more those old, authentic Muppet memories came back. The opening was just a rough settling back into this world, and though it's not a sign of the joy and wound you'd feel after the film's first act, we almost needed our hopes to be let down before they could be built back up again, brick by brick.

The story is simple, with life-long Muppets fan Walter joining his brother Gary and Gary's girlfriend Mary on their trip to Los Angeles. When Walter stumbles upon a scheme by an evil oil baron to tear down the Muppet studios, the trio set out to gather together the Muppets to put on a show and raise the money to keep the theater alive. That's all there is to the story. It's simple, and it's the only way it possibly could have worked. It gives everything room to not only breathe, but thrive in the space provided. And quite gleefully and with complete abandon it does, but without losing its heart.

From the first meet-up with Kermit, you can tell this is going to be a tough road to the top, and not without difficulty. Much ado is made about how long they've been away and how much people have changed, and it's very much true. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller are in full knowledge of the status of their subject. Looking behind me, in the midday of Wednesday, I couldn't help but notice how sparse the audience was in comparison to audiences for "Twilight". It's dumbfounding where people will adjust their eyes to fixate on. I don't know a logical soul on earth who shouldn't see and embrace this movie.

The film is perfectly equal to the sum of its parts, most of which are insanely spectacular. Many of them, I think you'll find to be musical numbers. "The Muppets" works as this unexpected musical event, as you mostly just expected this to be a film with the characters you remember. And yet, it's filled with both nostalgic and new songs to strike a chord with the audience. At first, it's very hand in fist, feeling sadly typical. It's not until you get well into it that you submit yourself to the silliness and joy of the experience. It's a celebration of happiness, more than anything, and if you're still kept in a funk after watching it, I can only assume you are completely soulless. Even when played for the sake of simple silliness, like the moments given to Amy Adams and Chris Cooper, it's utterly brilliant.

The talent involved only serves to unexpectedly heighten the feeling of occasion. Many of the celeb cameos are so unexpected and delightful, most especially a hilarious moment with Donald Glover busting out in true "Community" form. Many of the people there are there for just slight moments, some not even important to the plot. It's a film that's so brilliant by being okay with including "big stars" as an afterthought. The two biggest human characters of the film are played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams, two names that a strong lightning rods, but not obvious ones at all, nor is Chris Cooper was the wonderfully placed and cast villain of the piece.

Of course, there are bound to be a few flaws in the pot here and there, and it would be borderline insulting not to mention them. There are one or two jokes that just miss their mark ever so slightly, which is more than a little expected. The acknowledgment that they're in a film goes overboard just once or twice. And on an aesthetic level, it's not entirely there. The film's cinematography is about 1/4 of a frame too close to the action. This film is not meant to be a piece of artistic integrity, but it doesn't hold that as a hindrance or a badge of honor. And there's only one non-lyrical musical theme that doesn't just lay there.

That being said, the musical theme isn't overly repetitious or burrowing in its irritation. In fact, it works to just the perfect key for the film. It's a film of heightened nostalgia, but not in the close-to-pornographic way of "Super 8", nor the simple and dialogue-based method of "Midnight in Paris". Nostalgia, to the core of the word, is all about the pain of the past. It's the pain for something that is past, and what the film does is allow the heartening idea that the past is still here. The idea that, against all cynicism, there's always going to be that opportunity, and the above-and-beyond tearjerking moment at the end of the film ensures that this one goes out on a high note. It didn't just have me crying. It had me sobbing. "The Muppets" was so completely rendering in a way I thought wasn't possible anymore. Is there any greater way to spend a day of being thankful?

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