Like most of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jason Segel was a big fan of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Unlike most of us, he became a successful actor, who could convince Disney to let him write and star in a new movie about the beloved icons.
He does everyone proud with The Muppets, introducing a new generation to the dormant franchise without skimping on the nostalgia. Segel plays Gary, a small-town boy with a pretty girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and a brother named Walter who’s a little … different, as in noseless and made of felt. When Walter tags along on Gary and Mary’s vacation in Los Angeles, he not only discovers his true identity as a Muppet, he leads an effort to save the gang’s old theatre from demolition by an evil oil tycoon (Chris Cooper).
This involves rounding up Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest, and convincing them to reunite for a fundraiser. It’s not exactly an original premise, but it is very much in line with the “let’s put on a show” Muppets ethos. It also plugs directly into the brains of longtime fans, which are equally excited to bring back these characters and their sweet, clever humor.
Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin (along with Bobin’s Flight of the Conchords cohort, Bret McKenzie) understand and respect what Henson created, adding appropriate touches of their own. They’re better with the Muppet characters than the human ones (I never much cared about Gary and Mary, honestly), but that’s part of the appeal, too. Anyone can grab a banjo and sing “The Rainbow Connection,” but only Kermit can reduce jaded Gen-Xers to tears.
Extras: Lots of typical DVD features (gag reel, making-of, screen tests, etc.), which treat the Muppets as real actors, as well they should; a commentary track by Segel, Bobin and Stoller; an extended version of Cooper’s infamous (and very funny) rap number. (PG) Rating: 4 —LL
Was J. Edgar Hoover a closeted, cross-dressing gay man? That seems to be the only question anyone cares to ask about him anymore, and even Clint Eastwood can’t resist making it a big part of his 2011 biopic. He also wants to portray Hoover’s professional accomplishments, but can’t seem to decide which is more important.
The challenge comes from Hoover’s very private personality. Most of his work for the FBI is public record, and J. Edgar is at its best when it shows the energy and innovation he brought to the bureau in its early years. Even as he ages, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance has the obsessive drive that marked Hoover’s rise to the top, as well as his eventual fall from grace.
It’s the portrayal of his personal life that crashes the movie. Rumors have long swirled around Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, played gracefully by Armie Hammer. He was also close to his assistant, Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts), and the three form a strange professional/love triangle. When you add Judi Dench as Hoover’s domineering mother, you have a perfect recipe for the kind of shallow pop psychoanalysis that Eastwood usually avoids.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who wrote such a solid script for Milk, has no idea how to structure this story or what to do with all the behind-closed-doors speculation. It would have been much more interesting if Black and Eastwood had made Hoover’s secretiveness a plot point unto itself. This was a man who believed he had a patriotic duty to pry into the lives of others, but who guarded his own life so carefully no one really knows anything about him. That’s the kind of complexity that makes for a fascinating biography, but it requires acknowledging that your central character is an enigma.
J. Edgar takes the easy way out, filling in those interesting blank spaces with tired, formulaic melodrama.
Extras: A short documentary on Hoover’s life and career, especially as it relates to the movie. (R) Rating: 3 —LL