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The Muppets

Without really knowing why, I loved “The Muppet Show” when I was a teenager.  We had one of those “free cable for a month” programs that’s intended to get you addicted to 100+ channels so you’ll sign up for the rest of your life, but after about three weeks, we realized the only show we were watching regularly was “The Muppet Show.”  I think I tried to make a case to my parents that “The Muppet Show” was worth $26.99 a month (this was in the days before DVD box sets), but I lost.  They were probably right, but I’m still not sure.

It’s probably best not to think too much about something like the Muppets.  It’s hardly highbrow, intellectually engaging entertainment.  On the other hand, it’s not as purposefully, intentionally stupid as a lot of movie comedies, and that, in part, is why it makes it onto my screen in the first place. At its best, the Muppet schtick is a parody of comedy – it’s bad on purpose, so bad it’s good because it know it’s bad and it knows you know it’s bad.   The new Muppet movie captures that perfectly in one shining moment, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The story centers around Walter, a ℗uppet who desperately whose only dream in life is to be a muppet.  Jason Segel plays his brother, and Amy Adams is his girlfriend.  For their tenth anniversary they head to Hollywood to see the sights, and Walter tags along.  While visiting the rundown Muppet studios, Walter uncovers a plot by oil baron Tex Richman (Cris Cooper) to buy the studio, tear it down, and turn it into an oil field.  In the middle of Hollywood.

The Muppets, disbanded and drifting apart for years and years, are in danger of losing their studio, their history, and even their brand name unless they can raise an enormous sum of money in a ridiculously short time.  Kermit gets everyone back together and stages a telethon – with a kidnapped Jack Black as its host – to raise the money.  And thus we have the setup for a Very Special Episode of the Muppet Show.

I think it’s incredibly difficult to capture the particularly flavor of the old Muppet show and the best of the Muppet movies.  There’s a unique, rare talent involved in writing a joke that’s so bad it’s good.  Jason Segel et al take on the challenge here with obvious love and attention, but the results are hit and miss.  There are some very good moments: for instance, when Kermit and crew hit a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to their comeback about 35 minutes in, Amy Adams quips “this is going to be a really short movie!”   And perhaps the best bit in the film involves Fozzie Bear and the kidnapped, completely unwilling Jack Black doing a comedy routine together.  Fozzie tells a terrible joke. The audience is silent.  Jack Black groans and says “that joke is at least fifty years old!”  The audience roars.  It’s funny because it’s terrible, and because the performers know it’s terrible.   That’s the essence of Muppet humor.

In this movie age when it seems like everything even vaguely popular more than a decade ago is getting revived, reborn, rebooted, and remade, nostalgia often feels cynical – giving people something they already know is an easy way to get butts into movie theater seats.  But “The Muppets” truly feels like a labor of love — it’s risky for an actor like Jason Segel, for whom most of his repertoire is raunch and bawdiness — to throw so fully into something so sweet, corny, and sentimental.  But his heart is on his sleeve here.   “The Muppets” may not be a perfect revival of the old characters, but it has heart, and in the Muppet world, heart is what counts more than anything else.

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