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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Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
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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This episode is channeling Season 1 but bringing way more drama. It’s great to see the return of the snarky, passive-aggressive Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) we love to hate. She’s back to becoming stone faced and staring into space, viciously insulting her sister, and getting the best suitors. She’s not the only one back to their Season 1 personas. Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is back to scheming and has enlisted some help. Plus, the moment you have been waiting for ... the peace between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) is over. Full shade ahead!
Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks) stops by the Abbey. If you’ve forgotten him, he is the suitor that introduced Mary to Mr. Pamuk (Theo James). Mr. Pamuk was the guy that de-virginized her and died in her bed. Napier is working on a survey of how the war has affected Aristocratic manors. Speaking of manors, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is dealing with the death of one of the estate’s farmers. Mr. Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), the farmer’s son, has inherited a significant amount of debt. Lord Grantham kindly pays the debt in exchange for Mr. Drewe working it off. The Lord is back to keeping secrets from fellow estate runners, Mary and Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Branson is threatening to move to the U.S. to escape the stuffy life of an aristocrat and spare his daughter any embarrassment.
Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) is lurking by the metaphorical mailbox waiting to hear back from Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards). It doesn’t look promising for him since he just moved to a pre-Nazi Germany. Drunk Liza Minnelli Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) adjusts to her new lady’s maid and tries to convince Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) that they need to buy a refrigerator.
Isobel takes an interest in a young neighborhood boy, Peg. She convinces the Dowager Countess to hire him. However, when an antique letter-opener goes missing, the Golden Girls clash over the boy’s guilt. It’s witty barbs and loud sighs. Here’s hoping they have a fight in a fountain like on Dynasty.
Alfred (Matt Milne) seems adept at cooking. He’s selected to apply for the apprenticeship at The Ritz. Everyone in the kitchen is excited but he’s nervous. Meanwhile, with the prospect of Alfred leaving, Carson (Jim Carter) offers the footman position to Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle). Despite willing to take any odd job in the village, do with that what you will, Molesley’s pride is hurt at the prospect of being demoted to footman. Alfred ends up not winning the internship so Molesley ends up red-faced when he returns for the job. Looks like Molesley is one step closer to suicide.
The disturbing Anna Rape storyline continues to get more depressing. Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) has been super icy to Bates (Brendan Coyle). Bates overhears Anna talking to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and he devises a plan to find out what happened. He threatens to leave unless Mrs. Hughes comes clean. Thinking on her feet, she invents an assailant that raped Anna during the concert. However, Bates is convinced it’s Mr. Green (Nigel Harman). This is where things get dark. To this point, Anna has not known his name was even Mr. Green. Also, Bates is getting very scary and murdery. His violent inclinations and Anna’s fear make it seem like he could be abusive. Here’s hoping the writers don’t go in that direction.
Style & Sass: Best Lines of the Night
Not the first time you have had the wrong end of the stick. –Mary to Edith
I wonder how your halo doesn’t grow heavy. It must be like wearing a tiara ‘round the clock. –The Dowager Countess to Isobel Round I
Mrs. Patmore, is there any aspect of the present day that you can accept without resistence? –Cora
Well M’lady I wouldn’t mind getting rid of my corset. –Mrs. Patmore’s response
What would you prefer that I invite the local criminals to drop in strip the house bare? –The Dowager Countess to Isobel Round II
Downton is abuzz with an impending party .. but when are they not having one?
Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) is surprised by the appearance of the newly named Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen). They begin to bond and Mary begins to resemble her former self. Is it too much to hope for the slight-delivering, passive aggressive Lady Mary from Series 1? Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) invites Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) in the hopes that he will win the respect of her parents. Good luck, Lady Edith ... you’re the 1920’s answer to the Cathy comics. Ack! Terence Sampson (Patrick Kennedy) arrives on the scene and convinces everyone to play cards including Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). Luckily, Mr. Gregson wins back all the money and exposes the dirty dealings of Sampson.
Meanwhile, everyone seems to be really inconsiderate of poor Tom (Allen Leech). A guest asks him about Lady Sybil. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) arrives to the party despite mourning. Then in true shady fashion she complains about her sadness to Tom despite the fact that he’s a widower. Sure, she lost a child but is it anyone’s place to give someone survivor’s guilt? Tom confesses that he doesn’t feel like he belongs with the family. Scheming Miss Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring) brings him a huge glass of whiskey and then shows up at his room late in the night.
The drama: Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) surprises everyone, including Lady Mary, by bringing down Matthew’s old phonograph. Lord Grantham has Australian opera singer Nellie Melba (Kiri Te Kanawa) dine in her room until Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) corrects his error. Also, what the hell is going to happen if anyone founds out that Tom slummed it with Braithwaite?
Carson (Jim Carter) is his usually stern self as everyone is working double duty in entertaining mode. Lord Gillingham’s valet (Nigel Harman), known only as Mr. Gillingham, arrives on the scene and befriends Anna (Joanne Froggatt) much to Mr. Bates’ dismay (Brendan Coyle). Trying to impress Ivy (Cara Theobold) Jimmy (Ed Speleers) falls and hurts his hand. A broke Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), has been complaining all over town how broke he is and taking odd jobs. And yet, when asked to be a footman in place of Jimmy, he complains a lot.
Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) has a panic attack. Alfred (Matt Milne) makes the sauce and discovers a love for cooking. Anna has a headache so she excuses herself during the opera performance. In a disturbing turn of events, Anna gets violently raped by Mr. Gillingham. Too scared to tell her husband, she enlists Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) for help in covering it up. This is a huge departure from Downton's normal drama. Is having lovable and sweet Anna attacked too far or is it the right level of drama for the show? After all, times are changing as we approach the 1920s.
The drama: Anna can’t tell Mr. Bates because she’s worried he will go nuts and kill her attacker. Clearly, he’s a little unhinged. If memory serves he didn’t even kill his wife despite being arrested for her murder.
What does one say to a singer? - Lord Grantham
Screaming in the servant’s hall, singers chatting to his lordship and a footman cooking the dinner what a topsy-turvy world we’ve come to. - Carson
I’m afraid Tom’s small talk is very small. - Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith)
The stars of Downton Abbey beat their show back to the states. PBS will begin airing season four of the phenomenon on Jan. 5, but a few residents of the big house were on hand at a PBS event in New York City on Tuesday to preview the new episodes for some superfans. Superfans with impeccable restraint, if they've steered clear of downloads. The Dowager would be proud.
After a screening of the first 40 minutes of episode one, the cast took the stage with executive producers Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame. The discussion was plagued by lazy questions from moderator Bill Carter (just because you work for The New York Times doesn't mean you don't have to do your homework). Six months have passed since the gut-wrenching twist at the end of season three, and there's plenty more to talk about than how gosh darn uncomfortable those costumes must be.
Still, we managed to get some scoop. Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) reminded us that his character means well, but remains "a beat behind the action" in terms of social change. Michelle Dockery hinted that the widowed Lady Mary will have several suitors pursuing her this year, and pointed out that many fans think Branson (Allen Leech) should be among them. Speaking of love connections, Phyllis Logan gave some hope to those who'd like to see Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson get together: "She has great affection for him." When asked if Lady Edith will finally catch a break this season, Laura Carmichael struggled to give a spoiler-free answer. But we're guessing the answer is no. Lesley Nicol is still lobbying for Mrs. Patmore to get a boyfriend. And clear audience favorite Rob-James Collier reassured us that Thomas won't stop scheming anytime soon. Thomas has been told by society that he's an abomination, and so he meets those expectations. "As Eminem once said," Collier quoted, "I am whatever you say I am." Barrow is a 1920s Eminem. It all makes sense now.