I know, that headline is trouble. You're always treading dangerous ground when you insist on defining what makes a good this or the right kind of that, as if there is no room for change or improvement when it comes to classic properties. Of course there is — Jason Segel's 2011 Muppet film approached the concept from an entirely different direction. It didn't hit all of its marks, but it prevailed overall in its conceit: make a movie not about Muppets, but about Muppet fandom. But Muppets Most Wanted, in absence of a clear mission statement and fueled largely by the monetary glimmers of the sequel game (the film's opening number admits this outright), has fewer marks readily available to hit. Landing in the ambiguity between the classic Muppet adventure formula and Segel's post-modern Henson appreciation party, Most Wanted feels like a failure on both counts. It doesn't know which kind of movie it wants to, or should, be. So it doesn't really be anything.
On the one hand, there's the half-cocked "get-the-band-back-together" through line, mimicking but not quite accomplishing the spirit of the 2011 picture. None of the Muppets are particularly likable or charming in this turn, and even fewer of them actually given anything to do. Kermit loses his s**t in the first act after a spat with Piggy and a barrage of insubordination from his troupe (provoked by the nefarious Dominic Badguy, Ricky Gervais), storms off in a huff, and gets swept up in a case of mistaken identity when his criminal doppelganger Constantine pulls the old switcheroo, landing Kermit in a Russian gulag. You'd think this would be a good opportunity for the second tier of Muppet favorites — Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, et al — to go on a search and rescue... but save for a very brief sequence at the tail end of this achingly long film, none of the other Muppets are giving anything to do. They just hem and haw and perform the occasional "Indoor Running of the Bulls" while Dominic and Constantine scheme, rob banks, and bicker.
Meanwhile, Kermit has some fun in prison — a far more endearing plot that sees him befriending the merry convicts, organizing a penitentiary revue, and even winning the heart of the vicious warden Nadia (Tina Fey). If only we could spend more time with real Kermit and less time with fake Kermit and his second banana Gervais, an effectively boring pair.
On the other hand, though, there's the Muppet shtick that fans of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island — and yes, The Muppet Show itself — will deem the movie's best material: CIA Agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) hot on the trail of Constantine and Dominic. Here, we get a different type of Muppet movie entirely from what Segel and the A-plot in Most Wanted are opting: the old fashioned vaudeville act, with Sam standing as an independent entity from his googly-eyed brethren, on a goofy, musical prowl with Burrell that fuels the film with its best and most consistent chuckles. Their "Interrogation Song" number is outstanding, exemplifying the many talents of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who wrote all the music for this and the previous film.
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Unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted isn't sure that it wants to be The Great Muppet Caper, beheld so stubbornly to its Segelian roots. There's a palpable compulsion to stick with this agonizingly self-aware, nostalgia-crazy, brimming-beacons-of-the-past-in-a-callous-today theme that doesn't work a fraction as well as it did in the 2011 film. Without a legitimate celebration of any of our favorite characters, how could it? With so much going on in this movie, and such a lengthy runtime at just under two hours, it's a sure sign of failure that we walk away feeling like we spent barely any time with the Muppets.
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Zack (Dane Cook) is more than a box boy at Super Club—a not-so-thinly veiled version of Costco/Walmart style warehouse stores. He sort of lives there too with his secret lounge behind the stacks where he hangs with other Super Club outcasts (Andy Dick Harland Williams and Brian George) and trades damaged goods on the black market. Vince (Dax Shepard) is the Super Club’s superstar checker employee of the month 17 months in a row. Naturally Zack and Vince are mortal enemies and Zack takes Vince down several pegs with pranks such as writing obscene comments on his monthly award photo. But when Super Club transfers Amy (Jessica Simpson) from another store word gets around she has a thing for employees of the month. That’s all the motivation it takes for Zack to strive for box-stocking excellence. Once Vince realizes Zack is threatening his record he and his flunky Jorge (Efran Ramirez) conspire to keep him from achieving even minor success at mopping up spills or finding lost children. But as Zack starts to show Vince up he risks becoming a company man and losing touch with his friends. Can he get the girl and keep it real? Employee is suppose to be a vehicle for Cook’s relatable observational and sometimes smart-ass brand of humor. But either the script doesn’t do him justice or his persona doesn’t translate to fictional characters. His Zack seems like every other movie slacker only tamer (writing “I love anal” is as edgy as his PG-13 pranks get) and less sympathetic. Shepard is more endearing as the pathetically work-obsessed Vince. His attempts to be charming are so outrageously uncomfortable you almost wish Amy would hook up with him and teach him a few social skills. Simpson is totally adorable as the all-American love object with enough self-esteem to make her seem attainable. Naturally she also manages to squeeze her into some cleavage-producing dresses. The supporting cast however is all over the place. Ramirez shows he won’t be typecast as the same Latino character he played in Napoleon Dynamite by playing a guy with no personality at all. George satirizes a typical Indian clerk but is not nearly as effective as say The Simpsons’ Apu. Dick looks like he’s going through some sort of substance abuse withdrawal playing a cartoonish character with a cross-eyed condition while Williams just does the same monotone weirdo he always does. Silly comedies like this are hardly the type of movies directors use to express their range of cutting edge cinematic techniques. Usually if you just let the comedians run wild it works. First-time feature director Greg Coolidge doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong. The guys getting hit in the crotch are framed properly and the reaction shots are cut in with proper timing. The problem is the material just isn’t funny. Coolidge had a hand in the script so he is somewhat to blame for not beefing the laughs up with more insightful digs at warehouse stores or office romances. Employee feels more like a B-movie you’d watch on cable late at night a vehicle for a standup comedian peppered with other TV show bit players who are ALL capable of so much more. For example Cook Williams and even Dick do great stand-up. Shepard could have stayed in character in real life situations as he proved on Punk’d or they could have found absurdity in everyday activities for Simpson. I mean how could they not have her handle some bulk Chicken of the Sea? Come on it’s right there! Employee of the Month instead just wastes everyone's time.