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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There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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We may never be able to solve the mystery of how on earth Hollie Cavanagh manages to hang on so tightly to her spot as an American Idol finalist, but we can plead with voters to stop allowing her to sit pretty on the hallowed Couch of Safety. She can silence an entire auditorium of embarrassed by-proxy Idol fans with a single disappointing performance, yet she stays while ready-made performers like Jessica Sanchez and Colton Dixon receive the sting of the bottom ranks. Steven Tyler’s tangential compliments about floating spirits and ism and wasms make more sense than Hollie’s apparently stalwart position.
The Top 6 are about to tackle the classic catalog of rock legend Queen, and unless one of these miracles (or disasters) take hold, there is no way Hollie deserves to hang on like a sweet, flaxen-haired, pretty little leech. She may be a cutie pie and a total sweetheart, but to get all Simon Cowell on this thang: This is a competition, not a friendship circle.
1. The Idol Bug Strikes Back
The infamous illness that swept Idol’s Hollywood week audition rounds would have to make a comeback and take out at least three other contestants (Jessica, Joshua, and Phillip or Skylar) for Hollie to have any right to stay in the competition.
2. Her Idol Journey Has Been a Ruse Leading Up to a Miraculous Movie Moment Comeback
Maybe it’s all part of the plan. First, she won our hearts with her tiny frame and big voice coupled with her childlike love of her impossibly cuddly puppy. Second, she solidified her hold on our hearts by showing off her loving, cute-as-a-button parents. Then, she failed to improve and failed so hard onstage even Ryan Seacrest couldn’t muster a comforting comment. Next, she hung on past top dogs like Colton Dixon, defying all odds, and now, she’s ready to come out of her shell and show us that she had it in her all along. It’s the perfect Lifetime movie moment, but I’d bet a million of Jennifer Lopez’s bandage dresses that it’s never going to happen.
3. Elise Testone Gets Even More Lost
My problem with Miss Testone from day one is that I can never manage to pinpoint Who She Is As An Artist. You’d think after 10 years of America’s oldest live singing competition, our finalists would know how to carve out an image. Elise is more scattered than a Jackson Pollock painting, and if Now and Then week was any indication, she’s still lost. Still, she’s got a fire in her that deserves a little more exploration than Hollie’s vanilla ballads, but if she walks out this week and tries to convince us she’s the next Rihanna after trying on Rocker Chic, Blues Singer, and jazzy hats for the past few weeks, she may be the more deserving castoff.
4. Phillip Phillips Strains His Vocal Chords With an Over-Growl
As I’ve mentioned an embarrassing number of times before, I’m a Phil Phillips fangirl. Do they still make puffy, sparkly stickers for pop stars? Because my day planner could use some sprucing, and I wouldn’t mind using some Phil paraphernalia to do it. But seriously, he needs to watch his growling because he’s approaching dangerous levels. I know it’s his thing, and I love it just as much as the next obsessed Idol viewer, but he’s in danger overusing his superpower. And when he crosses that boundary, it’ll be like that time my cousin loosened the lid on the lemon pepper shaker and my salmon quickly went from pink to black and yellow. It’s bad, mmk? But as long as he continues to keep the grrrrr in check, Hollie should be packing her cute little (I’m assuming) pink and purple suitcase and head on home.
Do you think Hollie deserves to stay? Are you the one voting 10,000 times to keep her on the show? If so, who should go home in her place?
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