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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John Clark (Richard Gere) has a pretty good life--a successful career; an adoring wife and two wonderful kids. Yet something isn't quite right. He and his wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) have a strong and loving marriage but John feels restless and unfulfilled as he wades through his mind-numbing daily routine. Then one day while on the train home he happens to spy a beautiful dance instructor Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) staring forlornly through the window of Miss Mitzi's dance studio. Haunted by her gaze John impulsively jumps off the train and signs up for ballroom dance lessons unbeknownst to his wife. Suddenly John is exposed to a world he never imagined--a place filled with grand passions bitter rivalries and exhilarating dance relishing the moments he spends waltzing rumbaing and tangoing with his newfound friends (don't we all). But John soon discovers that it isn't enough to have a secret passion--the best part is sharing it with the ones he loves. Pour chocolate syrup over this one and call it done!
Gere's sure got happy feet these days. First the guy dropped jaws when he actually tap danced his way through the Oscar-winning Chicago. Now there's Shall We Dance?. What's next? Gene Kelly's part in Singin' in the Rain? In all fairness Gere plays John as an ordinary but charming middle-aged man who also just happens to have an affinity for ballroom dancing. It isn't in any way a stretch for the charismatic actor but he does have an uncanny ability to draw you in once he glides across the floor and flashes that sexy smile. As John's patient wife Sarandon doesn't go out on a limb either exuding her usual warm intelligence. As a married couple Gere and Sarandon do an excellent job keeping things refreshingly grounded. It's a marriage you immediately recognize--they've been together for so many years they've developed a loving familiarity but are trying to find ways keep it exciting. The supporting cast also do a great job livening up the proceedings including Lisa Ann Walter (Bruce Almighty) as the been-around-the-block ballroom dancer Bobbie and Stanley Tucci whose turn as Link a lawyer by day/salsa dancer by night is hilarious. Of course the one you really want to watch dance is Jennifer Lopez who sure does know how to sashay her way around her partners. Unfortunately when not dancing the rest of Lopez's performance is fairly stiff. Her sad sack story about some tragic past and losing her desire to dance competitively is just plain dull.
Once again Hollywood has no time to think of anything original simply remaking other classics--in this case the smash Japanese hit Shall We Dance? (Dansu Wo Shimasho Ka) written and directed by Masayuki Suo. Instead of concentrating on the Japanese culture and their taboos against the public intimacy of dance writer Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun) and director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity) find a way to give the story a good all-American spin concentrating on marital malaise and finding a way out of a personal abyss. That's all fine and dandy and gives the film a unique perspective; the problem is the subject matter: ballroom dancing. There have only been a handful of movies about that art form that have worked--the Japanese original just mentioned and Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom are two good examples. Maybe it's nice to go back to that old-fashioned age when Lawrence Welk's orchestra and dance partners brought the family together. But in this electrifying hip-hop age of MTV--with the writhing and the shimmying of nearly naked bodies on the primetime small screen--ballroom dancing seems a little er outdated.
The tagline reads "The wives of Stepford have a secret " and boy do they ever. Of course Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) a former tough-as-nails television network president doesn't know the secret. Not yet anyway. She just thinks she's moving to the peaceful upper-class suburbs of Stepford Connecticut with her attentive husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two adorable children--to try to recover from a nervous breakdown after being summarily dismissed from her high-powered job. What Joanna finds instead is a group of eerie '50s-type perfect housewives lead by the ultra-coiffed Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) who tend to their beautiful spacious homes excel at crafts and cater to their geeky husbands' every whim. The women's behavior is more than a little odd to Joanna even if Walter thinks it's all very quaint as he rushes off to join the other men folk at the Stepford Men's Association lead by Claire's manly husband Mike (Christopher Walken). Luckily Joanne isn't entirely alone in her suspicions discovering allies in recent transplants Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) a frumpy best-selling author and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) a gay-and-proud-of-it architect. Together they try to unravel the mysterious of Stepford while also managing to learn how to make the perfect Christmas ornament from a pine cone.
Stepford Wives employs a stellar cast. The over-exposed Kidman finally gets to loosen up a bit after such downers as The Hours Cold Mountain and Dogville and has fun with Joanna. Her bitchy TV executive is particularly comical as it is realistic especially when she's spouting off ideas on how to turn a tragedy into "real" television. Honestly the Oscar-winning actress can do just about anything--but it may be time for her to take a vacation. As Joanna's husband Broderick is spot-on as the mousy Walter who eventually shows some backbone (of course he does). Close and Walken also have their roles down er perfectly as the masterminds of their own little version of heaven. But the real standouts are Midler as the caustic Bobbie and Broadway actor Bart as Roger who provokes the biggest laughs from the audience with his flare for the flamboyant. Yes it may be a tad stereotypical but he sells it girlfriend. Even country singer Faith Hill tries her hand at the whole acting thing making an appearance as one of the Stepford wives--come on she certainly looks the part doesn't she?
Trouble brewed on The Stepford Wives set. Director Frank Oz (In & Out) apparently had difficulties with producers over the direction of the film (which veers completely away from the suspenseful original) as well as run-ins with co-stars Midler and Walken--and the end product reflects it. Stepford is muddled and savvy moviegoers will no doubt scrutinize the film's glaring flaws especially the whole "robot" component (are they actual robots or what?) and the over-the-top maybe-you'll-guess-it twist at the end. But Stepford's intentional ribbing of social mores and quest for perfection comes shining through thanks to Paul Rudnick's campy script. There are more than a few hysterical scenes including one where Joanna Bobbie and Roger sneak into one of the Stepford houses and after hearing a particularly vigorous lovemaking session between perfect wife #34 and her husband Roger runs up the stairs because he's "got to get some of that" or the scene where Claire talks about the great things to make at Christmas while Bobbie throws out her own clever ideas on what to do with pine cones. The important thing is Stepford Wives doesn't take itself seriously--well not really--and neither should anyone else.