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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You learn the story of the Tortoise and the Hare at such an early age, but rarely if ever is its central lesson actually validated in real life. Fast people win the race! Whether it's a business meeting or the Olympics (where fastest literally wins the race), rarely if ever does the notion of slow and steady pay off in any significant way. Certainly not in America, home of the Ford Escape. And yet here we are, finally arrived at the end of a 12-leg, month-long race around the world… and it's the slowest, steadiest team in the pack that emerge as the ultimate winners. Anyway: Congratulations, Beekmans!
But first let's rewind two hours to Mallorca, Spain, where four teams still competed for the top prize. After a little preamble from Phil, giving us everyone's stake in the race (family medical bills, mortgages, jet skis) and a quick preview of the passive-aggressive taunting to follow, we were off and running. Or driving, in the ALL-NEW FORD ESCAPE WHICH EVERYONE LOVED. "Awesome!" said the Twins. "That's crazy cool." "I want one." "Get me one." And that was before everyone found out about the car's hands-free back hatch! In fairness, The Amazing Race does a far better job than most shows at keeping its product placement to a dull roar. No one's peddling REFRESHING PEPSI at a Marrakech Bazaar or struggling through the GO DADDY WHO'S YOUR DADDY? lost kid challenge in Burma, and for that we should be perpetually grateful. If keeping your production costs down means showcasing a car I'm sure my mom wants, along with all the other cool moms? Do your thing, van Munster.
En route to Loire Valley, France, Twins couldn't shut up about how much the Beekman Boys "coasted their way" to the Final Four, "taking up a spot" that belonged to someone else. Okay! Once Trey and Lexi and Chippendales started chiming in, too, the conversation was loud enough to be heard by the nearby Beekmans. They sat down with the rest of the group in what looked like the race's most uncomfortable yearbook photo yet. The high school pettiness continued as teams grabbed their FORD ESCAPES to Chateau de Villandry, the Beekmans removed from the trio's planning. Twins once more intimated how frustrating it is to have a team like them around, by which I think they meant a team they're forced to compete with? Or more specifically a team that knew the local language when no one else did, which had its advantages.
I've got something to say about Speed Bumps, which is: They're stupid. Tie up some lady's corset? Five more minutes of physical activity, tops, and that's factoring in travel time (here a brisk walk from the route marker everyone was at anyway). A real challenge might present more geographical inconvenience, or force a team to actually think in the abstract. But rote physical tasks at a nearby location offer nothing by way of a dramatic impediment. I mean, I get it — you've got a team viewers like that the producers have a vested interest in keeping around. Why offer a challenge that ensures their definite dismissal? But on a show whose reality credibility is so often head and shudders above everyone else's, those more orchestrated moments really stand out.
Anyway, the joys of watching the Chateau's "Lady of the House" get corseted by two screaming Sri Lankan twins in Lululemon gear paled in comparison to those same twins screaming at their alliance not to help Josh and Brent. "Don't let them ride on your coattails!" they called out, literally running next to the non-Speed Bump teams as they made their way toward the Ford fleet. "Don't even talk to them!" This was 30 minutes before they'd be eliminated, and even then I wasn't totally sure what to make of the Twins. On the one hand, I think they're insane? On the other, they seem genuinely able to take whatever craziness they're dishing out. The latter was on display at the Detour they and the Beekmans chose, where teams were tasked with weighing, cutting, and sorting various types of meat for a small army of hunting dogs. "You're the evil gays today!" they threw at Josh and Brent, accusing them of faking a leg injury, too. The Beekmans took it in stride and threw trash-talk right back, getting in the Twins' heads about their dwindling alliance. A Mean Girl detente? "If we lose again to them I'm going to kill myself," Natalie threatened. Then laughed. As the dogs howled and howled.
The Chippendales and Team Texas plowed a field, and did it well. There is not much more to say.
GALLERY: Best and Worst TV Gamechangers Post-Detour, all four teams headed to La Cave des Roches, where dark, musty tunnels provided the perfect growing environment for 10 varieties of mushrooms teams needed to collect. ("ERRYDAY I'M TRUFFLIN'" I sadly muttered at the TV.) Lexi nailed the configuration on round one; Jaymes got it on round two. Meanwhile I pondered how much it would suck to die in a mushroom cave. Twins and Beekmans arrived at practically the same time, the latter I have to imagine on the coattails of the former. And while it was Natalie and Nadiya who snuck out of the cave first — while Brent still struggled to find the exit — that wouldn't be the end of the race. Because for what felt like the first time this whole season, teams actually struggled with directions and translation! Trey and Lexi fumbled their way to the pit stop. Twins actually just went the wrong direction entirely. Where creative editing might in the past have suggested that Beekmans' "will they pull it out?" was phony, that was… not the case tonight. Josh and Brent pulled off something miraculous and, miracle of miracles, earned their way into the Top Three. On elimination, Twins noted that Beekmans "have tricks up their sleeves." But they also acknowledged their own shortcomings, namely needing to "harness our reactions into more positive directions." You're often shrill and circle more than few entries on the DSM-IV, ladies, but dammit if you're not full of life and, surprisingly, honest reflection. We're going to miss you for the next 500 words! …And we're back! A postcard kicks off the FINAL LEG OF THE RACE, featuring a boardwalk scene with the inscription "Wish You Were Here!" Being that teams know they're heading to New York, it can really onlybe Coney Island, but I was pulling for one team to confuse boardwalks and head to Seaside Heights, NJ. THAT would have been a hell of a Speed Bump. But no one blinks, and everyone smoothly makes their way to the Big Apple. How do you feel heading into this last stretch, Trey? "We've been battling the Chippendales these last few legs and… I think this leg is going to be sort of the same." Wiser words, buddy. While the music department worked overtime to provide a score that screamed FASTER AND WITH MORE INTENSITY, the three remaining teams scanned the boardwalk looking for the scene from their clue. The dog in sunglasses some cameraman found along the way basically made the entire race, but before we could learn more about him teams had figured out that they needed to head to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and do something related to Houdini. Could it involve a straitjacket? YES. Race has, and has long had, this weird habit of starting and ending the season with these wickedly terrifying gravity-focused challenges. In between, you sell energy drinks to Japanese businessmen and search caves for friggin' mushrooms, but when money's really on the line? You're dangling 15 stories high trying to get out of a straitjacket before you're let go, plunging toward earth. It's understandable that anyone might freak out a little. Once upon a time, a challenge like this might actively deter a team, presenting a near-insurmountable obstacle, but Trey, Brent, and Jaymes all made it through okay. Next up: pizza at Little Italy's oldest pizzeria, Lombardi's. Could you memorize orders for and deliver 10 pizzas around lower Manhattan? Trey and Lexi could, no problem, but like me, the Beekman Boys had difficulty matching pies and places. To be fair, their itinerary was a list of generic New York settings anyone might confuse: the hair salon! A bike store! Probably a firehouse and taxi dispatcher, too, though we didn't see them. Residences they delivered to were opened by New Yorkers who, not surprisingly, did not look thrilled to be greeted by Amazing Racers. "Whatsamattahyou?" everyone said, I think. When Josh and Brent were forced to revisit some of the locations they screwed up, Chippendales made up more ground. And the Race tightened, and the music quickened and everyone sat up in their chairs except me who had accidentally Googled "Beekman Boys" to see if I was spelling their name correctly and, time delay viewer that I am, had the ending totally spoiled for me. The remaining 15 minutes were just caked in misery. GALLERY: Best and Worst TV Episodes of 2012 A familiar symbol led everybody next to the UN Headquarters, and the trickiest challenge of the leg (and maybe the race): identifying the expressions for "hello" and "goodbye" used at every Pit Stop along the way and matching them to their country of origin. Because NO team had bothered to write down any of these during the race. Thanks to public school language requirements, everyone of course got "hola" and "adios." After that… two-and-a-half hours passed and the sun set before the three teams, pretty much totally even, got down to their final few flags. Josh approached his set like a "math problem," he said, rotating as many word choices through as quickly as possible in an organized trial and error. Lexi, meanwhile, was knocked around by her flags and complained that the challenge was "out of her control." I think you are using that expression incorrectly, Lexi! Josh down to Bangladesh. James down to his last flag. Even match-up! The Beekmans finished. Chippendales finished shortly after. Gotham Hall. Pit Stop. Finish Line. GO BABY GO BABY G-- Without any jerk editing or falsely planted excitement, the outcome was clear before they entered the building (but after they came in second-to-last in nearly every of the preceding legs of the race): Beekman Boys had done it. After a truly great smooch I'd been waiting for all season, Josh and Brent turned to Phil and all their friends/enemies/Twins in the crowd of defeated Racers. "If you just keep going, people will help and at some point you will win." Josh spoke of how their money will help pay off the farm mortgage and allow them to stay closer, longer, than they've been for several years. What they didn't say — but I will! — is how their victory demonstrates the merits of a level head and kind heart. Remember their perpetually sad alliance with Abbie and Ryan? The way they stuck with their partners through to the end? I have to imagine that was cosmically rewarded in some way tonight, just winkedat by some Higher Power. None of which is to say the Chippendales (2nd) or Lexi and Trey didn't deserve it just as much, maybe more, but that good things happen to good people. This season, we've noted, was one of the flat-out NICEST on record. Backstabbing only occurred in the eyes of the slightly delusional (hi Abbie and Ryan!), and most often teams were looking out for one another -- trying to make the racing experience as pleasant for those around them as they could. And hey — Chippendales still got two GREAT FORD ESCAPES out of the deal! While the world, Jaymes suggested, maybe got a "different view of Chippendales. For better or worse." Trey and Lexi didn't have much to say. Twins, who I figured would pipe up and offer some criticism of the way Beekmans conducted themselves on the mat, said nothing. It was Monster Trucker Rob, in his infinite wisdom, who offered his assessment of the race's conclusion: "It's not for me to judge anyone on their lifestyle." Okay! Next Week: Counting down the Mayan Apacolypse [Image Credit: Jonathan Littman/CBS] More: Amazing Race Finale: Who Will Win? — POLL Amazing Race Recap: Beekman Rising Amazing Race Recap: Nice Guys Finish (First Through) Last
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Do you smell those funky foreign dishes wafting through the air? Can you hear a disgruntled spouse, friend, relative, or on-again (soon to be off-again) love interest screaming at their partner? Are PHIL'S EYEBROWS RAISED? Then it must be the start of a brand-new season of TV's most edu-taining reality show, The Amazing Race!
Like its first cousin Survivor, Race has been around now for what feels like 40 seasons. And like many that reach middle age, the show has decided it's time to spice things up: For the first time ever, contestants are now eligible to win $2 million dollars to the normally half-that-amount prize. This would be tremendously exciting… but for the stipulation that only the team who wins both the first and last challenges is eligible to claim it. So "Dating Divorcees" Abbie and Ryan are now, as long as they remain in the race, the only duo capable of being the first-ever $2 million winners. Dramatic? Not really. But we're getting ahead of ourselves…
Some 17-24 hours earlier, and many miles from the Shanghai, China Pit Stop, we met our newest set of 11 teams. They are:
1. TREY & LEXI (DATING)
A former University of Texas football player/cheerleader power couple, Trey and Lexi are hoping to use their winnings to get married. I hope they get their wedding off the ground with or without Race money, but a million dollars (or TWO, as they certainly hoped) would go a long way toward the Hook 'Em Horns wedding dress, floral arrangements, and marching band rental two Longhorns will surely require.
2. NATALIE & NADIYA (TWINS)
Twin Indian sisters born in America but raised overseas. In their first interview, the two admit to having used their identical looks to cheat on tests. Later in the episode they casually pretend to be further behind when another team asks their status. Are they trustworthy? It's just too soon to tell! But probably not.
3. JAMES & ABBA (ROCKSTAR & HIS LAWYER)
One of these guys was a metal guitarist in the '80s for groups like White Lion and Megadeth, and the other was/is his similarly coiffed lawyer. Together they are "comfortable being uncomfortable" and a surprisingly adept duo, apart from nearly duffing the first Pit Stop entirely. Based on the focus they received in this first episode, I think it's safe to say they'll be around for a while. "Breakout team!" said someone at a CBS meeting in June.
4. JOSH & BRENT (GOAT FARMERS)
Goat farmers with a twist, that is — they're GAY goat farmers. In the span of the episode they went from seemingly doomed by their passive-aggression (at the airport: "Are you going to be like this all the way to China? I'll get a sleeping pill.") to remarkably quick and competent racers, finishing in 4th place. "We'll see!" is what I'll say now having just like you only seen this one episode.
5. AMY & DANIEL (DATING)
Despite a bout of meningitis that eventually required dual leg amputation, Amy is a fierce snowboarder and seemingly all-around Superwoman. Daniel has some sick tats and is not great at ping-pong but can read a clue, which is a surprisingly rare skill sometimes on this show. I don't know what "Dating On and Off for Ten Years" means if it's not the premise for a movie, but they seem like a good team!
6. CAITLIN & BRITTANY (BEST FRIENDS)
They both played sports in college, where one of them was "mean" and the other — okay, pass.
7. ROB & SHEILA (ENGAGED)
They are now "ROB & SHEILA (ELIMINATED)" but before Phil's first sympathetic dismissal of the season, they showed a lot of promise. In their intro video, Rob demonstrated his prowess at "Lumberjack sports" (!) and carried an axe seemingly all the time. Said Sheila, who had some kind of job, "Rob is definitely the boss in the relationship." It's a small sin that we didn't get to watch this play out as we all imagined it might. Bon voyage!
8. GARY & WILL (SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS/BEST FRIENDS)
The slash relationships on this show are sometimes just a thing of beauty. "Retired Navy Seals/Bowling Teammates," "Tupperware Salesmen/Nickelback Fans," and "Parents/Dog Whisperers" are all combinations that, even if they haven't appeared on the show, could easily show up soon (and have already done so in my dreams). "Substitute Teachers/Best Friends"… there's just something so nice, so elegant about that intersection. And the questions it raises! Did Will meet Gary in the teacher's lounge, cracking a joke about parking spaces? Were they best friends well before they both decided to professionally show videos when Mr. Brown was out sick? The good news is we'll probably find out as they were NOT (pretend I'm Phil) eliminated this round. What we do know right now is that they had applied to the show seven times before being selected, the height difference between them is 1.5 feet, and the littler one fist pumps like a true Jersey Shore local.
9. ABBIE & RYAN (DATING DIVORCEES)
Unless their batteries shut down halfway through Tajikistan or wherever the Eurasian leg of the Race takes us this year, Annie & Ryan will probably win the whole thing. Being in good shape so often makes all the difference, and these two are in great shape. Plus Ryan compared his partner to Oprah on their website bios, which is the nicest thing you can say to any woman (who already knows she's attractive).
10. JAYMES & JAMES (BEST FRIENDS/CHIPPENDALES DANCERS
There's no shame in capitalizing on a popular pop cultural moment. And so it was that CBS executives, minutes after the midnight showing of Magic Mike at the Lincoln Square Loews, were on the phone trying to nab some shirtless, bow-tied beef slabs for Race's latest season. So far Jaymes and James seem very well suited to physical challenges and also agreeable, but maybe really, really lacking in common sense? Where most teams struggled to get through the episode's ping-pong match, or gross dining, our Chippendales had the most difficult time finding a woman fiddling with an abacus. Maybe they lose focus with their shirts on? "This Season On… " suggests that they will rectify the shirt issue soon enough.
11. ROB & KELLEY (MARRIED MONSTER TRUCKERS)
And finally the season's "weird" team, edging out the surprisingly low-key Rocker/Lawyer duo with their MONSTER TRUCKING and LOOKING LIKE WESLEY SNIPES IN DEMOLITION MAN. I'll be honest — I thought these two were goners the minute they started wandering around their first Shanghai destination, failing to spot the clue box. And even more when they misread, or just didn't read, the instructions at the second Road Block (an eating contest). And yet they persevered, finishing among the top contenders and demonstrating the power of a committed, mutually interested partnership. Plus they're going to absolutely dominate in the Monster Trucking challenges.
Oh, and as to what, like, happened in the episode:
As is so often the case, we start the Race on American soil — here Pasadena, Calif., where within seconds of being cut loose, the racers were faced with a sort of terrifying opening task. "You buttplugs want a million dollars?" Bertram Van Munster bellowed from his Moon Tower far above earth. "Then rappel down this bridge, yesterday." Wasting time is for seasons past! Cycle 41 is all about ACTION.
After driving to LAX in FORD, THEY'RE AMERICAN-MADE FORD vehicles the teams set off for their first international destination: Shanghai, China. And, in 30-ish minutes, producers and challenge designers managed to both question and challenge all the wacky, xenophobic factoids we've learned about the Land of the Setting Sun.
Confirmed, for one, is the extent to which China loves its ping-pong. In the first Road Block, Racers were pitted against a "Junior Champion" whom they were required to best only once. And the Chinese ace was stuck using non-regulation paddles, like books and frying pans. And yet…China's answer to Forrest Gump consistently mopped the floor with his American challengers. Eventually each team got past, sure, but only after the kid had downgraded to, say, a wet napkin paddle. At which point the Racer received their clue, and a participation trophy.
Next up on our Chinese tour: gross food. You heard they eat DOG over there, right? It's probably true, especially if they're definitely eating frog fallopian tubes served in hollow papaya. Having seen the seasons where someone hemmed and hawed for an hour before eating haggis, most everyone sailed through without much protest. Natalie & Nadiya even encouraged each other with Bollywood dance moves and the word "Twinny," which is already exhausting.
All that stood between our 11 teams and the Bund Observatory Pit Stop was a little old lady fiddling around on an abacus, which most found pretty directly. But some teams, man… I suppose the word "abacus" could be a dead stop for a few people, and even those that knew what it was might struggle to spot one from afar. But more than rappelling, more than ping-pong, and more than frog fallopian tubes, "little old lady with an abacus" seemed the most challenging event of the leg. That's a problem when you're trying to create dramatic television, but reality is reality. Bertram would never compromise that.
In the end it came down to a foot race between the Chippendales and Rob and Sheila, which the latter just couldn't win. But so what, I hope they're saying. They have each other; they have their collection of axes. What's a million dollars when you're a LUMBERJACK ATHLETE with a breakfast special in your name at any Denny's nationwide? An oversized check is fleeting; being a man the likes of which I will never know personally is FOREVER.
NEXT WEEK: Will Amy & Daniel continue their reign of moral superiority after regretfully helping Abbie & Ryan beat them to the mat? Will Karma find its way back to Natalie & Nadiya for their lying to the Monster Truckers? Answers to these questions and probably more Chinese stereotypes. Tune in!
[Image Credit: CBS] More: The Amazing Race Season Finale React: A Record Breaking Episode Hollywood.com's Fall TV Guide