Is Monday Movies a Muppet, or Are We a Man?
A guy I knew in high school claimed he snuck into the sanctuary of his synagogue with the rabbi’s daughter, who there administered him a blowjob. This is, technically, an impressive transgression. But you find sacrilege only where the gods still live, and in a fallen world, I think my own contribution to that art has slightly more oomph. In college, I seduced a girl to the sound of “The Rainbow Connection.” Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? Little wonder that the lullabies that led us into sleep should also guide us, as we squirm from youth towards adulthood, into bed.
It’s not as if it was a kink. I loved the Muppets. The episode happened at Deep Springs College (it is all-male – the girl was visiting a friend—sorry, Oscar!), where students hold ranch jobs at the same time that they attend classes. I would sing the cows into the dairy barn in the morning with Kermit and Fozzie’s duet “Moving Right Along,” much to my senior dairy boy’s chagrin (sorry, Mark!).
I was not the only adult in my age cohort loathe to give up childhood things. My generation become notorious for holding fast to its nursery totems well into the period we were supposed to regard as our adult lives. By some accounts, the perspective of childhood became our intellectual stance. We lived on boats against the current, borne endlessly into the past.
And now we have a new Muppet movie. The better children’s movies always play to the grown-ups, but the new film seems to be chiefly for the generation that grew up on the Muppets, with strangely little attention to a new, young audience. It is not a perfect movie, or the greatest Muppet movie, but it is a lovely Muppet movie, and it is a perfect machine for making Gen-Xers cry.
(Spoilers below the fold, FWIW.)
The Muppets is the story of two brothers, Walter and Gary. Gary is played by Jason Segel, the lean Nick Andopolis of Freaks and Geeks grown up to become the puffy stumbler of the TV show How I Met Your Mother and the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall—which movie he wrote, as he did The Muppets. Walter is played by a Muppet.
Gary and Walter are inseparable. Gary grows older and taller and Walter never does, but they stick together. Walter gradually becomes estranged from the world of human boys, but he always has the Muppets to fall back on when he’s low. When Gary plans a trip to Los Angeles to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of his relationship with Mary (Amy Adams), he invites Walter along with a promise to tour the Muppets studio. On the studio visit, Walter overhears the machinations of Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to demolish the studio and extract oil from underneath it. (It could happen!) The plot departs from here. The trio warns Kermit, who rounds up the old gang to put on a show and save the studio.
The Muppets is best when it’s about the Muppets. The groaners, the call-backs, the meta (“that was a pretty expensive-looking explosion for this movie!”), the schtick, the anarchy. The final resolution of the Tex Richman plot is quintessential Muppets: it comes down to a throwaway gag in the credits, a Gonzo-sponsored weapon of projectile violence. They get the band back together. They put on a show. These are exactly as loose as they should be.
It’s at its worst when it acts as if the world needs a Muppet comeback because the Muppets are more wholesome than the entertainment of today. Pace Fox News, the problem with the villain isn’t that he’s an oilman – of course he’s an oilman! It’s that his villainy is signified by having him don gold chains and perform a rap. If anyone’s figured out how to incorporate good rap into children’s entertainment, I haven’t seen it, but I like to think that Eminem would be on a reconstituted Muppet Show. I like to think that Amy Winehouse would still be alive if she’d been a guest star on the Muppet Show. Humor me.
It’s at its weirdest when it becomes clear that the movie is not entirely about the Muppets. Though The Muppets definitely earns a spot in the canon with the first three movies, worlds apart from the flat drek of, say, A Muppets Christmas Carol, it’s unique among the Muppet movies for having human characters at its center.
Mary’s is a particularly thankless role—she wants a wedding ring, and she gets pouty when Gary neglects their anniversary dinner because he’s helping the Muppets stage a comeback. She has two small musical numbers, one alongside Gary and the other alongside Miss Piggy. Because of the unfortunate (abysmal) gender politics, they make her look silly-foolish instead of silly-happy, like Gary, and romantic-clingy instead of romantic-passionate, like Piggy.
Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords wrote most of the songs. They are very good–nothing the equal of “The Rainbow Connection,” but “Muppet or Man” and “Life’s a Happy Song” are easily on par with “Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along” or “Movin’ Right Along.” Mrs. K-sky and I left the theater, immediately summoned “Life’s a Happy Song” over Spotify, and went skipping down the mall steps and into the parking garage, passing friendly policemen in shiny shoes and maybe a smiling grocers with a basket of apples.
“Muppet or Man,” the fabulous power ballad at the movie’s midpoint, crystallizes Walter and Gary’s dilemmas and provides a clue as to why Mary’s part is so lousy. She exists not as a character but as a character-function: so that Gary may choose “man,” i.e., marriage and adulthood. This is no surprise—it’s the plot of Guys and Dolls, although Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit had a little more fun before they settled into the bosom of feminized civilization.
Walter, of course, will choose “Muppet,” and find his place in the show alongside Kermit and the rest. The song unfolds the meaning behind Gary and Walter’s biologically improbable relationship. Walter is Tyler Durden, Mr. Hyde, the childhood to which Gary and all of us have cleaved so long as alter ego.
There’s no audience proxy other than Gary and Mary. So when Gary leaves Walter with the Muppets to return to Smalltown, U.S.A., we’re left with the odd conclusion that the extravagant reboot of the Muppets franchise is telling us to say goodbye to the Muppets franchise. But where does that leave it? The Muppets regards its characters as so tightly bound to its original audience that it’s hard to imagine it leaving them much beloved by a new generation. (Compare its opening weekend box office of $29 million to Cars 2 at $66 million or Puss in Boots at $34 million.) The adoring throngs who fill the streets after the Muppets’ show are unknown extras, all adults. Maybe down the road, the Disney machine will groan into action, bending the Muppets towards the gadgety tweens whose champion Selena Gomez admits, “My agent asked me to do this—I have no idea who you are.”
With no human proxy, The Muppet Movie asks the audience to be dreamers of Kermit’s equal, or divas of Piggy’s equal, or weirdos of Gonzo. But with Gary and Mary, The Muppets asks us to say goodbye.
I may have been especially susceptible to that sense, of an ending. A friend—a dear friend of Mrs. K-sky’s, a new friend of mine—is dying this week, of cancer, at age forty. He is at the center of a phenomenal tribe of live-out-loud madmen, performers and pranksters whom I’ve been lucky to meet through my wife, and they are all gathering around him, offering food and mirth and company and taking each other through the awful journey.
His wife posted recently that he was saddened to be unable to leave the house to see The Muppets, but a little work and luck got them a screener copy. I read their account just before we left to see it: “It’s an awesome movie, and exactly perfect for D. right exactly now.”
So was it too strange that when we left Walter with the Muppets, I thought of death? We return to the disenchanted world, sending our brother onwards, on a boat headed into not the past, but the darkness. Among the Muppets in their theater. (Could there be a better jester’s Valhalla?) Sung to sleep by childhood lullabies once more.
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