Pure fun, no strings attached: ‘Muppets’ revels in ingenious absurdity
So often with remakes and movies based on a television show, there’s no point. Or the point is not what we’re watching but that we’re watching it at all, that the Hollywood apparatus has seduced (or brainwashed) us into the theater. “The Flintstones,’’ “The Beverly Hillbillies,’’ “Mission: Impossible,’’ “Charlie’s Angels,’’ “The Dukes of Hazzard’’: The movies exploit nostalgia, pray for amnesia, prey on ignorance, and promote recycling.
There’s no crime in a movie based on a television show. Occasionally, with, say, the second installments of movies based on “The Addams Family’’ and “The Brady Bunch,’’ something ingenious occurs - the filmmakers transcend kitsch with satire, farce, or joy. “The Muppets’’ is ingenious, too. Everything about it is satirical. But the show means something to the filmmakers. The movie is too alive, too hilariously ecstatic with the show’s corny vaudeville wit for it to mean nothing to them.
“The Muppets’’ doesn’t spin off the show into a free-standing adventure the way other Muppet films have (the last was 1999’s “Muppets From Space’’). It’s essentially a resurrection of the variety half-hour that ran from 1976 to 1981 on CBS. The movie treats Muppetness with as much serious absurdity as Jim Henson did. Nicholas Stoller and the actor Jason Segel wrote the film, which James Bobin directed, and it maintains a world in which parity is paramount: signing and talking, cool and squareness, pop-art and trash, flesh and fabric. It’s all the same.
The tall, thick-middled Segel plays a human named Gary. His brother is a civilian Muppet named Walter (who’s puppeteered and voiced by Peter Linz). “The Muppet Show’’ sustained Walter’s childhood the way seeing “The Cosby Show’’ did for some lonely black kids. When Gary, who looks well past 30 (Segel is 31) and still shares his childhood bedroom with Walter, takes a vacation to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), Walter goes, too. There, Walter visits the dilapidated Muppet Theater and overhears a greasy, drawling businessman (Chris Cooper) promising to tear down the studio unless the Muppets, who’ve gone their separate ways, can raise $10 million. Walter, Gary, and Mary track down Kermit the Frog and cajole him into attempting a reunion. So Kermit’s Rolls-Royce gradually fills with the old gang and the theater is abuzz with the activity of putting on a telethon.
As they labor and rehearse, a collective lament emerges. Do the Muppets still matter? Can they matter again? Clearly, these guys have never seen Jim Parsons on “The Big Bang Theory’’ or Seth Rogen, Donald Glover, or Zooey Deschanel in anything. “The Muppet Show’’ has borne an entire generation of comedic personality. Parsons knows this. He makes a canny appearance in a very funny musical number that more or less argues that we are Muppets and Muppets are us. Gradually, the gang regains its confidence - well, Miss Piggy never loses hers. But the movie, amazingly, never doubts itself.
Stoller, Segel, and Bobin know what they’re doing. The musical numbers proceed with deceptive complexity. They really come from nowhere. Each is a little treasure of ingenuity and glee, particularly the ones that feature Cooper or Adams, whose stardom is most evident when those saucer eyes of hers can brim with song. The movie is a joke on the sort of bromance that Segel perpetuated in “I Love You, Man,’’ except the brothers are real. In any case, Adams and Miss Piggy time-share a disco number (“Me Party’’) that’s both sarcastic and sincere in its moment of self-pity. Cooper is more of a blissful shock. He takes to choreography without ruining dance and, with the stone-straight face of Dabney Coleman, raps. He’s the least likely star of a musical number since Charles Durning slid around the back of a limousine in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’’ Bobin co-created and wrote and directed many episodes of the HBO show “The Flight of the Conchords,’’ and brings to “The Muppets’’ that show’s everyday-surrealist approach to musical-comedy.
Unlike the vast majority of movies based on television shows, even the good movies, “The Muppets’’ isn’t completely cynical. It’s so deliriously in love with the show - with its furtive precision and underappreciated acuity, with the memory of it - that even the movie’s detours into vulgarity or weirdness or the illogical seem knowingly innocent. Couldn’t, for instance, any of the stars working the phones during the telethon just give Kermit the $10 million?
Instead, “The Muppets’’ winks at the illusion of innocence, the exhausting work of maintaining purity, fantasy, and fun. A perspiring Gary says of his sweat, “That’s probably from the dance number’’ he just did. In addition to everything else, Stoller, Segel, and Bobin want to harmonize a modern sense of entertainment entitlement with old-fashioned work. That’s how you arrive at the dreamy sensation of a Muppet barbershop quartet torturing Jack Black with a warped-vinyl rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.’’
I’ve never seen a movie so perfectly balanced between unabashed nerdiness and hipness. It’s transcendent that way. When the gang finally gets its act together and the Muppets make their way toward their place in the tiers of arches for the show’s opening number, it’s so redolent of the original show that my eyes welled up. That show really adored the starriness of all kinds of performers, of Florence Henderson and Rita Moreno and Elton John and Alice Cooper. The makers of “The Muppets’’ don’t care that the show might be kitsch now. They embrace the spirit of a bygone enthusiasm for show business that, like most Muppets, is fully felt.