The Muppets

Mahna Mahna

Reminiscing aside, James Bobin and Jason Segel’s 2011 The Muppets is not so much a reboot as it is a long-time-coming sequel.  The film, featuring the classic Muppets mix of celebrity cameos, witty humor, and bold self-awareness, manages to deliver one of the best Muppets stories in the series, not quite rivaling Muppet Treasure Island or The Great Muppet Caper, but a close third, and the motley cast of live actors (who may never have shared the screen otherwise) occasionally let slip a pining, glowing expression, as though just realizing they’re onscreen with characters they watched as children.

The story follows Gary (Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams), as they travel to Los Angeles for their tenth anniversary.  Gary brings his brother, Walter, who looks (and grows) like a Muppet.  How they are biologically related is never explained.  Walter, a lifelong fan of the Muppets, dreams of visiting the Muppet studio, but soon learns that not only have the Muppets not put on a show in years, but an “evil oil baron” aptly named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans on demolishing the studio to reach the resources beneath.  The Muppet characters (Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, The Great Gonzo, and all the rest) band together for one last show, which they hope will raise enough money to save the studio and preserve their legacy.

Throughout the adventure (with musical numbers abound), everyone from Jack Black to Emily Blunt to Rashida Jones to Sarah Silverman appear (along with half the cast of NBC’s sitcom lineup), in roles of various sizes.  The Muppets themselves are juggled well in terms of screen time, with most of the focus on Kermit and Walter.  Statler and Waldorf (my personal favorites) prove once and for all that their cynical pseudo-gentlemen humor will hold up unto the latest days (“I always dreamed we’d be back at Muppet Studios.”  “Dreams?  Those were nightmares!”), and characters such as Rolf and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem get their due appearances (Animal even has his own side plot featuring an anger management group led by Kristen Schaal).  The film also features a group of bad-egg Muppet impersonators called “The Moopets,” who quickly antagonize themselves (Dave Grohl appears as their drummer, “Animool”).

The tale is fun, well-paced, self-conscious, and quite often very sweet.  My only gripe is that a musical film in which Jack Black and Neil Patrick Harris both appear doesn’t feature either of them singing.  Seems unforgivable, though it only occurred to me in retrospect.  Additionally, there is a serious deficiency of the always-hilarious Sam Eagle, though I understand how much they had to cram into this script, and Sam does make a brief appearance, so no foul.

For those born in the 80’s and before: don’t miss the end credits.  That’s all I can really say.

The Muppets (2011); written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller; directed by James Bobin; starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Rashida Jones and Chris Cooper.

J. Edgar

Share the power

Perhaps my favorite thing about Clint Eastwood’s films is that they’re difficult to market.  Million Dollar Baby caused an ingrate-uproar when Maggie Fitzgerald turned out not to be a mirror image of Rocky.  Invictus was part political drama and part sports movie, and all I think of when I remember the film is my father inviting me to watch it with him, claiming “This is a pretty good movie” (a shining compliment from my father).  Hereafter had Matt Damon, beautiful women, and sci-fi elements, but Matt Damon didn’t fight anyone, there was no sex, and no aliens.  The American public can’t handle this.  In 2011, from the man who once acted in movies seemingly created for the sole purpose of marketing, comes J. Edgar, another biopic, this time concerning the life and career of the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The role of J. Edgar Hoover himself is played subtly and professionally by Leonardo DiCaprio, who will have every right to stop biting his tongue during the Best Actor ceremony in February if he doesn’t receive a nomination.  Filling out the leading cast are Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s Assistant Director and lifelong companion, and Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary of fifty-four years (by 1972).  The three actors deliver performances which shed the novelty of watching a period piece and uncover the core of the story (characters/people) immediately.  Rounding out the cast is Judi Dench as Hoover’s beloved mother, with whom he lives until her death.  Where this could have been an incriminating piece on a well-disliked man, Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black make Hoover a sympathetic character from the outset, such that we question his principles and methods while simultaneously rooting for him in his personal life and many of his career exploits, particularly his rivalry with Richard Nixon, perhaps the only American president who will never get a sympathetic portrayal.  Even George W. Bush got one (not that he should have, but there you go).

The film’s principal line of tension is Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, not only as an assistant but as a romantic companion.  As a great many scenes take place within the realm of Hoover’s private life, there is plenty of fiction/speculation/embellishment here, but the story as portrayed by Eastwood/Black is so tender that no matter how much genuine information is available concerning Hoover’s sexuality, most viewers will hope this was pretty close to how it was.

In addition to this story, we get Hoover’s public life and his (somewhat sinister) handling of the “Crime of the Century.”  To prove the worth of his FBI, Hoover must track down the kidnapper of Charles Lindberg’s (Josh Lucas) child, which as we know, turned out to be Bruno Hauptmann (portrayed here by Damon Herriman).  These sections of the film involve more of the “period” side of things, showcasing movie theatres, early television ads, cereal boxes, and even a brief gunfight between gangsters and cops.  On the few occasions where we see blood, it appears stark, bright, and shocking on the heavily graded background, which renders the film almost black-and-white and gives it a timeless appearance.

I’m not so sure about Eastwood’s decision to cast Jeffrey Donovan as Robert F. Kennedy.  Donovan’s performance, albeit brief, comes off as more of a cartoony impression than anything else, and the fact that DiCaprio is wearing “old” makeup during these scenes doesn’t help the situation (the makeup is actually well done, but we consciously know what DiCaprio actually looks like, which makes our minds do funny things with these scenes).  Donovan is a competent actor, but there’s a reason he’s headlining a show on USA and not Hollywood films.

I’ve heard the film’s narrative referred to as being “disjointed,” and to these folks, I say the same thing I say to the “hard to follow” people and the “too boring/long” people: read a book.  Stop throwing words like “disjointed” out there when you have little knowledge of what a “jointed” narrative looks like.  Would you call a short story collection disjointed because there are page breaks between the stories?

Finally, Eastwood’s portrayal of Hoover strives to humanize its title figure, yet doesn’t change the fact that he did the things he did.  Still, making him this sympathetic while sticking to so much historical accuracy proves (if it hadn’t already been proved) what a master filmmaker Eastwood is.  He doesn’t try to make you like what Hoover did, and these scenes are presented in an objective enough way that no particular viewpoint is forced upon the viewer.  As Eastwood once said, “I’ve gone around in movies blowing people away with a .44 magnum. But that doesn’t mean I think that’s a proper thing to do”.

J.Edgar (2011); written by Dustin Lance Black; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts.