Tag Archives: Comedy

Nanny McPhee

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Nanny McPhee sweeps into the chaotic house of widow Cedric Brown and his seven children and immediately sets about casting her spell over the unruly brood. She had better work her magic quickly, however; Cedric’s Aunt Adelaide demands that he remarry within the month, or the whole family will be cut off without a penny.

Life’s hard for undertaker Cedric Brown (Colin Firth). His wife having died shortly after the birth of seventh child Agatha, his days are more than full trying to earn a crust while the kids run riot, although he still relies on the financial support of short-sighted Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury). When the children see off their seventeenth nanny, Cedric and his limited staff of cook Mrs Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton) and maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) are in no position to cope; so Cedric is mightily relieved when ‘Government Nanny’ McPhee (Emma Thompson) pitches up with a host of facial disfigurements, a stern way with words, and a magical stick.

Under the rebellious leadership of elder child Simon (Thomas Sangster), the kids resist the new nanny’s discipline, only to find that doing what they want mysteriously gets them into terrible trouble. There’s bigger trouble still on the horizon: firstly, Adelaide desires to take a child under her own wing; and even if that plan can be thwarted, Cedric still needs to remarry or the family will be left destitute and destined to be broken up. Surely there’s a more eligible woman than Celia Imrie’s frightful Mrs Quickly?

Were one feeling spectacularly grouchy, one could just about muster a charge sheet against Nanny McPhee. The most damning indictment is that McPhee (based on Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda) is undoubtedly a close cousin of P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Perhaps aware of this, the film plays up McPhee as a negative image of Poppins, at least in appearance; it may also have been a conscious decision not to include any songs, a correct decision whether intended or not.

Another charge is that anyone with an appreciation of – well, fiction, to be frank – will know which way the wind eventually blows the second Evangeline appears; again, guilty, but such is the way with fairytales. Others will recoil at the vivid colour scheme, which recalls pantomime sets, especially when Mrs Quickly bustles into town with her gaudy outfits (for the kids too!) and tips the movie into an excess of noise, colour and mess. There’s even a sense that director Kirk Jones is aiming for a Tim Burton vibe, a feeling strengthened by Patrick Doyle’s Elfman-like and occasionally intrusive score. The vibe doesn’t really pay off, and neither do the special effects: the friendly donkey earmarked to stand in for one of the children looks weird and brings Shrek to mind, not to this movie’s advantage.

All the above is true. Nanny McPhee is broadly pantomimic in style and obviously derived from Mary Poppins, paying direct homage to it at times (kites, anyone?). However, it’s also an utterly charming fairy tale in its own right, infused with a genuine sense of wonder and magic; the humour, colour and fantasy of the movie offers much for the young and young at heart alike, standing in stark contrast to dowdy, sensible tales such as Ever After. Emma Thompson, as screenwriter, knows when to lay on the humour and when to darken the tone, so the movie moves along with the rowdy children’s exuberance, the underlying sadness of the departed wife, and the impending threat of disaster all at once, without ever flagging.

The final scenes, with their pure white motif, recall Shrek in a positive way and can’t help but pull on all but the most cynical hearts; what’s more, McPhee’s five lessons are reminders that good manners, instilled properly, are key to good communication and harmonious co-existence, deftly capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary TV show Supernanny. And there are welcome stings of entirely inappropriate comedy: Cedric is hilariously cheerful about a bout of influenza that boosts his trade; and when was the last time you heard the word ‘incest’ in a kid’s film, let alone delivered in the manner of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell?

More than the writing, the film is truly distinguished by the quality of its acting. Thompson is wonderful, expressing her emotions with short grunts, sharp movements and expressive looks which cut straight through the make-up; thankfully, there’s no hint of an explanation of McPhee’s origins or why her appearance changes after each lesson is learnt – the visual metaphor is allowed to stand for itself. Firth’s highly-strung performance is funny, but he also makes you feel his predicament, while hardly anything needs be said about Angela Lansbury other than that she’s every bit as professional as you’d expect.

Macdonald has a sublime capacity to become whatever she needs to be: touching as a lowly scullery maid, she also makes for a lovely lay-dee, even with food on her face. Much credit should also be given to Sangster, who cements his promise from Love, Actually with a performance full of nuanced emotions. The other children, too, are much more palatable than movie kids have a right to be, though I could have done without words being put into the mouths of babes. If you have refined tastes, the combined larking of Staunton, Imrie and Patrick Barlow and Derek Jacobi as Cedric’s unbelievably camp parlour assistants might come over as overkill; personally, I enjoyed their pantomime turns, Imrie in particular playing up the wicked stepmother to great effect.

Nanny McPhee is, when push comes to shove, a children’s film, and it would be silly to say that it offers adults the same sweet treats it gives to children. That said, it is a great children’s film, which deserves to become as well established a classic as Disney’s practically perfect progenitor.


Ruthless People

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Cheating businessman Sam Spade plots to kill his loud, brash wife and is only too delighted when a pair of unlikely kidnappers threaten to do the job for him. Of course he’s not handing over the ransom money! But when his mistress inadvertently blackmails the police chief into arresting him, Sam suddenly finds the tables turned. Will anyone come out of this with their dignity intact, or more importantly, the money?

From the instant the credits begin, this film is resolutely eighties: primary colours everywhere, zigzag styling, synthetic music, big hair and a brilliantly nasty little story about greed and lust. Danny DeVito is Sam Spade, detailing to his Mistress Carol (Anita Morris) his plan to get rid of lumpy, blousy wife Barbara (Bette Midler). Sam doesn’t know two things: firstly, that Carol plans to use this information to blackmail Sam with a video of the deed made by her young and dumb boyfriend Earl (a bleached Bill Pullman); secondly, that poor young couple Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), the latter a fashion designer whose idea for a Spandex mini-skirt was stolen by Spade, plan to kidnap the (as they think) beloved wife for $500,000.

Naturally, Sam refuses to hand over the money and the Kesslers are forced to drop their price, but complications arise as he pretends to go along with the police investigation. Earl’s video, which everyone takes for the ghastly murder, turns out to be the police chief Harry Benton’s noisy indiscretion with a prostitute, making him vulnerable to Carol’s demand that Sam should be arrested. Even worse for Sam, Barbara’s hostility to her kidnappers melts away as she shapes up and learns of her husband’s refusal to pay. It all comes down to a showdown that can only turn out messily.

DeVito fills Sam with unashamed ghastliness, inviting comparisons between Ruthless People and films like Heartbreakers, which I dislike with a passion. But the differences are plentiful: here, you feel that Sam has driven Ken and Sandy to their actions, De Vito being the perfect pantomime villain to whom you can only wish worse things would happen. Also, despite her vulgar demeanour, you feel sorry for Barbara and you’re glad when she gains self-confidence.

And despite the dodgy ethics of captivity leading to weight loss, the jokes are also much better in Ruthless People, not solely centred below the waist. In general it’s as subtle as a brick, but there are still some nice Zucker/Abrahams touches, such as the police playing tennis in the background at the Spades’ home or Benton’s “World’s Greatest Husband” mug. The plot gets satisfyingly convoluted, and although the low-speed car chase at the end is something of a humdrum climax, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, which is as much as you can ask for.

De Vito and Midler carry off the acting spoils with ease, but Judge Reinhold is effectively frustrated as kind-hearted kidnapper Ken. Helen Slater takes a while to warm up as his mousy wife, but grows into the part when she befriends Barbara. Special mention must be made of Pullman, whose squeamish Earl is a marvellously dense character. It may or may not be a role he looks back on with much fondness, but his debut is a great comic performance.

Ruthless People is the sort of broad, low-brow film that is never going to win awards (that said, Midler won a Golden Globe for her performance), but although it is often nasty – especially to poodles – it is only mean to people who ultimately deserve it. More than that, the funny bits hit a lot more than they miss: if only the same could be said about a lot more so-called comedies.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Her fame proving an insuperable obstacle to the day job, Gracie Hart becomes the glamorous face of the FBI. Gracie’s poster girl role is both limiting and lonely, so when her friend Cheryl is kidnapped along with pageant host Stan Fields, she has to get involved at the sharp end. However, she has fellow agent and ‘minder’ Sam Fuller to contend with – and theirs is not exactly a meeting of minds.

Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) just can’t catch a break. Although her heroics at the Miss United States pageant have earned her a certain cachet, her new-found celebrity proves just as liable to get her colleagues shot as her previous impetuousness. Boss Harry McDonald (Ernie Hudson) tries to avoid a fuss and takes Hart off duty, which she would probably be more angry about if her relationship with Eric (the non-returning Benjamin Bratt) hadn’t suddenly, and conclusively, bit the dust.

Ten months later and Gracie’s a media star, flogging a book and dispensing vacuous fashion advice to youngsters, with surly and violent Agent Sam Fuller (Regina King) in tow as bodyguard and outrageously camp Joel (Diedrich Bader) providing snarky quips and fabulous outfits. But you can’t keep a good agent down for long, and the kidnap of Miss USA Cheryl Frasier and Stan Fields (Heather Burns and William Shatner) in Las Vegas sends Gracie and her team on the hunt for their kidnappers, the Brothers Steele (Abraham Benrubie and Nick Offerman). Though there are a number of false starts – not least Gracie leaping on Dolly Parton – and local Bureau chief Treat Williams is none too pleased with the New Yorkers’ interference, Hart makes headway with the nervous assistance of her local liaison, jilted Agent Foreman (Enrique Murciano). But to fit in in Vegas, Joel has to come up with some pretty extraordinary clobber for the gals (and himself!) – and Sam isn’t exactly itching to fit in.

Let’s be honest about it: the ugly duckling plot of Miss Congeniality was hardly a breath of fresh air. It did, however, work on its own terms, with the help of some game acting. Miss Congeniality 2 doesn’t, for several reasons: first, there’s the sheer matter of time. Though the plot picks up immediately after the first film, there’s a strange disconnect between the movies. In part, this is because everyone looks different (don’t make me say older: Bullock still looks fine); but mostly, it’s because the star power, such as it was, and the sparkle that came with it, is almost entirely lacking.

It’s quite understandable that someone like Michael Caine wouldn’t be available – he’d probably found himself a room in Chris Nolan’s house by 2005 – but the failure to lure Benjamin Bratt in for at least a day speaks volumes. While Bullock again works her darnedest to wring laughs from the juxtaposition of goofiness and glamour, Regina King is lumbered with a role that’s simply a version of Gracie in the first film, only more so (though at least she has attitude, which is more than can be said for her part in that other benighted sequel, Legally Blonde 2). And in place of Caine’s effortless cool, we get the modest, generically camp talents of Diedrich Bader. When the trio pull together, such as the entertaining set-piece where Sam reluctantly glams up and sings ‘Proud Mary‘ with Bullock and Bader as flamboyant back-up, Miss Congeniality 2 comes to life; but these moments are few and far between.

Next, there are the awkward machinations of the plot. The beauty pageant gave a natural shape and impetus to the events of Miss Congeniality, a driving force that isn’t replicated in Cheryl and Stan’s kidnap. It’s easy to see why Shatner’s back (apart from an empty diary?), since his bumbling Stan Fields remains endearingly clueless. This time, however, he’s the villain of the piece; but because we like him, he can‘t directly be the kidnapper, so he hires a man in a hat who…I don’t know what he does, actually, but he’s soon disposed of by the thuggish and unexciting Steele brothers.

Gracie’s insight into the crime, meanwhile, comes via a tortuous link to a Dolly Parton drag act, which – surely – only exists because Ms Parton was available for a cameo. There’s some over-familiar aggro between Gracie and her bosses, too little of Cheryl’s good-natured dimness, and rather too much of Agent Foreman being lovelorn and drippy. The overall effect is not confusing, exactly; but the film is never fluent and its choppiness can get tiresome. It’s not relieved much by the finale, either, which is competently staged but low on logic.

Most importantly, Miss Congeniality 2 just isn’t as sharply written as its predecessor. The set-pieces are quietly amusing, such as Bullock dressing up as a pensioner to visit Stan’s mother, but there’s nothing to match Victor’s acidic quips here; instead, there’s a lot of King looking gruff and Bullock looking sad about her ruinous love life, with silly comedy (the attack on Dolly, escape by faked cramps) slotting in where it can between the loose cogs of the plot.

I’ve already mentioned Legally Blonde 2, and on the whole I prefer this sequel’s dourness to Elle Woods’ flimsy, fluffy canine adventures. But there’s not much in it, and liking Miss Congeniality 2 very slightly more is hardly a recommendation. If you’re desperate to see Bullock in feathers, give it a whirl, but it’s not up to the original’s standards. I’d urge you to give this a miss and instead remind yourself how good she is in Speed*.

NOTES: Not Speed 2, though. What is it with Bullock and unimpressive sequels?

Miss Congeniality

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: When a domestic terrorist threatens mayhem at the Miss United States beauty pageant, the FBI need someone with beauty, poise and natural grace to go undercover. Unfortunately, all they’ve got is Gracie Hart: smart, athletic, and as feminine as a builder’s bum-crack.

Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is in trouble. She’s not a rogue agent, exactly, but her tendency to act before she thinks does tend to get her colleagues shot. With her job on the line, she’s naturally passed over when boss Harry McDonald (Ernie Hudson) chooses an agent to head up an operation to thwart ’The Citizen’, a domestic terrorist who teases the FBI with cryptic poems about his targets. Gracie’s colleague and sometime sparring partner Eric (Benjamin Bratt) gets the job of preventing the next outrage, but Gracie’s smarts still come in useful; and when they discover that the Citizen’s next hit is the Miss USA pageant in San Antonio, Texas, a lack of suitable moles makes her even more valuable.

The only problem is, Gracie’s one of the boys, a hard-fighting, beer-swilling tomboy who believes pageants represent Neanderthal, sexist attitudes. Still, she’s the only candidate, so she’s brought up to snuff with the help of dapper consultant Victor Melling (Michael Caine) and a team of industrial beauticians. However, looking like a lady and acting like a lady are two very different things, and as the pageant progresses Gracie works night and day to both fit in with her fellow contestants and unmask the Citizen, whoever he – or she – may be.

At first glance, there’s very little to separate Miss Congeniality from the crowd. It’s an undercover cop movie played as fish-out-of-water comedy, a mash-up of Kindergarten Cop, My Fair Lady, The Princess Diaries and Legally Blonde, the last particularly acting as a direct opposite for comparison (Elle, blonde, gains smarts: Gracie, Brunette, goes vacuous). It shouldn’t surprise you at all that Gracie learns from the girls she initially dismisses, especially Heather Burns’ ditzy Cheryl/Rhode Island, and vice versa; and it’s entirely predictable that the investigation takes an unexpected turn and she has to hand in her badge, forcing her to solve the crime alone.

This is all well-worn territory, and not all of it is slickly executed; for example, the set-up that throws Gracie into the pageant is clunky (the FBI HR database is cross-referenced with a dress-up dolly website to show employees, including Hudson, in swimwear), and her combative romance with Eric exists solely because the rules, for some reason, demand that this kind of story needs a love interest. Bratt’s not particularly interesting, and doesn’t have any chemistry with Bullock, so why force them together?

So it’s a good job that Miss Congeniality benefits from a potent combination of a snappy script and a range of good acting turns. First amongst these is Bullock, who uses her considerable gifts as a comedian (chief among them an admirable lack of vanity) to constantly coax laughs out of Gracie’s predicament. Her slapstick pratfalls may be comedy basics but she works them magnificently, most memorably during her post-transformation reveal.

Bullock is supported brilliantly by Michael Caine, who barely gets out of neutral but almost steals the film regardless, thanks to his scathing-yet-tender attentions towards his ‘Dirty Harriet.’ Candice Bergen and William Shatner have tremendous fun as (respectively) uptight pageant organiser Miss Morningside and oafish MC Stan Fields, both destined for the chop. The warmth and spark of all these performances compensates for the routine nature of the plot, and the fact that it struggles to balance the business of the beauty show with the operation to catch the Citizen (indeed, the terrorist is captured off-screen and never heard from again).

Also, while it’s entirely correct, politically and otherwise, that Miss Congeniality doesn’t use the pageant setting to leer at the contestants, it’s reluctant to reveal what it thinks of women parading around to be objectified and ranked by (mostly) men. You’d have to watch Drop Dead Gorgeous, flawed though that movie is, for commentary on the thought processes of beauty show contestants; I’d guess their backbiting is more representative of the truth than the supportive sisterhood displayed here. One pro-lesbian outburst apart, the film doesn’t really have an edge to speak of; the observation that contestants all say they want world peace is hardly a shattering revelation.

Nonetheless, Miss Congeniality gets the important bit right: it’s funny. Bullock and Caine have a field day, but the laughs are spread out nicely between the cast (when Gracie jumps on a crowd member because he’s packing a weapon, Miss Morningside responds ’This is Texas. Everybody has a gun. My florist has a gun.’) You won’t know anything coming out of the movie that you didn’t know going in, but chances are you’ll have a pretty good time anyway.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Bosom buddies Romy and Michele hear that their school is having a 10-year reunion, but come to the conclusion that their lives aren’t up to scratch. When plan A – suddenly becoming successful, svelte and attached – doesn’t work, the girls hit on a much easier plan B: just lie. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

School days at Sagebrush High, Tucson, Arizona weren’t exactly a blast for lifelong friends Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow). Romy couldn’t get over her crush on the athletic Billy (Vincent Ventresca), leaving her ripe for humiliation at the hands of Billy’s girlfriend Christy (Julia Campbell) and her mean girlfriends. While Michele was also a victim of Christy’s spitefulness, she was more troubled by the unwanted attentions of awkward geek Sandy Frink (Alan Cumming), Sandy being an unlikely (and unreciprocated) object of desire for aggressive loner Heather (Janeane Garofalo).

Ten years later, Romy and Michele are flatmates and have an outwardly sunny life in Los Angeles, partying by night and, in Michele’s case, doing nothing in the daytime. However, when Heather lets slip that Sagebrush is holding a reunion, the ladies are suddenly forced to assess how successful they really are. In the face of potential fresh humiliation, they try to improve their lives quickly by slimming down and snagging blokes, while Michele half-heartedly looks for a job.

When all that proves too much hard work, Romy makes another suggestion: if they act like they’re successful businesswomen, who’s to say they’re not? Romy comes up with the brilliant wheeze that they invented Post-Its, while Michele runs up a couple of natty suits; unfortunately, an argument over their relative cuteness causes the girls to fall out, depriving them of mutual support when they face their former tormentors.

Let’s start with the good things about Romy and Michele…, which more or less boils down to Romy and Michele. Anyone who has seen Friends (the early seasons, anyway) will know that Kudrow is a very capable comic actress, and her Michele is marvellously dippy whilst never feeling like a clone of Phoebe Buffay. Alongside Kudrow, Sorvino is quite lovely as Romy, and it’s a pity that she hasn’t done more comedy (or perhaps she has, in which case it’s a pity I’ve not seen it).

Together they make a believably featherbrained and eminently watchable duo. Actually, the acting’s generally pretty good: Garofalo’s trademark surly demeanour helps her steal every scene she’s in, Cumming has fun in a smallish role, and so does Camryn Manheim as always-enthusiastic organiser Toby. The film also gets a point for the evocative 80s soundtrack and at least one more for the strange delights of Romy, Michele and Sandy’s freestyle dance.

Sadly, that’s more or less where the good things end. I’m neutral about the overall storyline, since this isn’t the first film to point out that blondes from Los Angeles have a reputation for being vacuous – Earth Girls are Easy and Clueless predate Romy and Michele, Legally Blonde came after – and won’t be the last. What’s more destructive is the inelegant nature of Robin Schiff’s screenplay and David Mirkin’s direction. For example, the film repeatedly zooms in and out of a yearbook to establish, in flashback, what the characters were like at eighteen; the device works once but becomes tiresome the third time around. Another example is the inconsistency of Heather’s motivation: having been in love with Frink, like, forever, she goes off him because he’s become rich and self-confident?

Or take Michele’s dream, which takes up a considerable chunk of the middle act. The whole point of a comedy dream sequence is that we initially accept it as the ‘real’ story, are taken aback when things go a bit strange, then cotton on just as the game’s given away (Exhibit A: Baldrick turning into an Alsatian in Blackadder the Third). Romy and Michele extends its dream sequence well past the point that the audience twigs what’s going on, yet persists anyway, indulging in a 70-year flash-forward to pay off a weak joke about The Mary Tyler Moore Show that’ll mean nothing to 99% of those viewing. Anybody would think there was some padding going on.

The real issue, of course, is that the film is just not funny enough. Were the laughs bigger, you wouldn’t notice the mechanics of the script; as it is, it often misfires, so the movie judders along like the Jaguar Romy (ahem) procures from the dealership where she works (there’s some other clunking product placement too). It doesn’t surprise me at all that while this film is adapted from a Robin Schiff play, she’s essentially a TV writer: the jokes are TV-sized and, without the response from a live audience to fill the gaps, often fall flat. Romy and Michele would have benefited greatly from a sharper edge, like Heathers, or a chunkier story – I kept waiting for something exciting to happen, before realising that the reunion film I really wanted to be watching was Grosse Pointe Blank.

Regarded in a cold light, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion doesn’t stack up, doing poorly by two good actresses and two zeitgeisty (in 1997) characters by sending them on a sitcom journey without enough jokes in the trunk. But for all the movie’s faults, there’s something undeniably sunny and ultimately uplifting about Romy and Michele themselves – and hey, it’s a damn sight better than Mirkin’s awful Heartbreakers.

Muppets from Space

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Great though he may be, Gonzo tires of being one of a kind in the world. He discovers – via his cereal – that he’s an alien sought after by his race, and his response brings him to the attention of government agency COVNET. When the agency’s head Edgar Singer turns out to be a lot less affable than he first appears, it’s up to Kermit, Fozzie and the rest of the Muppets to stage a rescue, Miss Piggy hoping a close encounter will boost her TV career.

Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz) is one of the big Muppet family, sharing a house with long-time friends Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), Fozzie Bear (Oz again), Rizzo the rat (Whitmire again) and hundreds of others. But in another sense he’s alone, and it weighs heavily on his heart. When Gonzo’s alphabet shapes tell him to watch the skies, the other Muppets put it down as typical Gonzoid craziness, Rizzo and Pepe the prawn (Bill Barretta) taking advantage by getting him to build a Jacuzzi.

However, Gonzo is convinced that his extra-terrestrial kind are trying to reach him and he goes on a TV show, helmed at short notice by Piggy, to say as much. While Gonzo looks forward to meeting his family, COVNET chief Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor) sees Gonzo as proof of an imminent alien invasion and takes him in for interrogation, Rizzo becoming an unwilling lab rat at the same time. Kermit and pals, backed up by Dr Honeydew and Beaker’s inventions, make plans to bust their friends out of COVNET and make sure Gonzo makes his date with destiny at the beach location negotiated via the medium of a talking sandwich: this is the Muppets, after all.

This probably isn’t much help if you’ve not seen The Muppet Christmas Carol, especially since I haven’t reviewed it yet, but the best way to review Muppets from Space is as a sort of compare and contrast with the 1992 film. Christmas Carol had great charm, a number of serviceable songs, intelligent use of the Muppets themselves, a brilliant star turn from Michael Caine and – most important of all – the cast-iron Charles Dickens story keeping everything firmly on course. From Space, basically, doesn’t.

I’ll deal with each of the above in turn. Charm is, of course, an ineffable quality, but it boils down to being made to feel as warm and fuzzy as the Muppets themselves. Unfortunately, Muppets from Space feels for the most part like treading water, a product churned out to keep the puppets in the public eye at the least possible expense. Cheap visual effects are often worse than no effects at all, and this is definitely the case here, since they often distract from the touching story of Gonzo’s loneliness. That said, you’re already likely to be distracted by the incessant sound of funk stamped all over the soundtrack. I like funk, in small doses, but to splash it across an entire film aimed primarily at kids born in or around 1990 seems like madness.

And the Muppets? Well, Gonzo’s the star of the show and good value for it, though Rizzo and his murine friends run him close. Animal has his usual, chaotic fun, and Piggy, as ever, gets to show off, though I’m not sure punching a government suit in the groin is really her style. However, Fozzie and square old Kermit are pushed slightly out of the picture by the diverse new characters who emanate from the 90s Muppets Tonight TV show – Bobo the bear, Clifford the catfish, Pepe the prawn. You can’t blame Henson studios for wanting to push these characters forward, and Pepe in particular is funny, but they lack the charm of Jim Henson’s original creations (Rowlf is barely seen or heard).

Much the same is true of the non-Muppet cast; although Tambor is commendably committed to his part, he’s a one-dimensional, shouty bad guy who can’t hope to have the same impact as Caine. Predictably, a host of cameos from Ray Liotta, David Arquette, Andie MacDowell, Rob Schneider and so on don’t really redress the balance.

Finally, there’s the story. Very few narratives can compete with Dickens’ tale, which is why it’s been filmed so many times, but this cross between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a cut-price Men In Black doesn’t come close, blunting the feel-good message of Gonzo belonging on Earth all along. The script is fundamentally lazy: given the action-movie staples ‘How do we get past the guards?’, ‘How do we avoid being seen?’ and ‘How do we escape?’, Muppets from Space’s answer each time is a magic potion cooked up by Honeydew and Beaker. Besides, the script lacks comic instincts: for example, Andie MacDowell had to come back to the beach at some point – even after the credits – with several thousand cups of coffee; sadly, the pay-off never came.

Muppets from Space is a perfectly adequate, if not very cinematic, outing for the fuzzy fellas, and by no means so awful that you’d predict the Muppets’ decade-long (more or less) disappearance, before acknowledging how forgotten they’d become in The Muppets. That said, there’s not much about it that’s memorable either, so unless you’re a big fan of the crew – or funk! – there’s no real reason to seek it out.

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: When Elle Woods discovers that her dog Bruiser’s mother is a captive of V.E.R.S.A.C.E. – not the fashion label but an animal research lab – she sacrifices her lucrative lawyer’s job (and puts her dream wedding on hold) to go to Washington, in an attempt to put a halt to animal testing. Initially, Congress is unreceptive to her perky charms, but Ms Woods has a knack of finding useful friends in a crisis.

Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a success story. She’s a popular lawyer with prospects of promotion in a Boston law firm, with a wedding – at Fenway Park, no less – to her beloved Emmett (Luke Wilson) on the cards. However, when she draws up the wedding list there are no guests for her even more beloved Chihuahua Bruiser (Moondoggie(!)); and the results of a private eye’s digging horrify her when she discovers that Bruiser’s mom is owned by a research laboratory, who won’t give her up.

Elle takes up the case but her law firm are less than sympathetic, replacing the promotion with the sack; but ever-resourceful, she calls on a favour with sorority sister, Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), to join her staff in Washington. Elle’s target is no less than to introduce Bruiser’s Bill, legislation that would put a stop to animal testing, but her bubbly, overwhelmingly pink approach to life comes against a brick wall in the form of Rudd’s by-the-book Chief of Staff Grace (Regina King).

Deflated by her lack of progress, Elle is buoyed by the friendship and advice of doorman Sid Post (Bob Newhart), who walks dogs and provides leads (sorry) to influential people in Washington, including Congresswoman Libby Hauser (Dana Ivey), who wears a Delta Nu ring; and Congressman Stanford Marks (Bruce McGill), who owns a rottweiler who prefers the company of male dogs such as Bruiser. With these new friends on board Elle looks set to make progress, but under pressure to make deals (and fighting for her own survival) Victoria withdraws her support, effectively killing the bill at the Committee stage. However, if Elle can get the signatures of 218 members, the bill can be directly heard in Congress; and her Delta Nu connections, plus Paulette’s tonsorial skills, all play their part in rocking the vote.

Legally Blonde – recapped under the opening credits for the memory deficient – was undoubtedly a confection, a spun sugar film with little but the brightness of Reese Witherspoon to give it any weight at all; so it’s a real shame that instead of continuing Elle’s learning process, the sequel has her regressing into her former state of effervescent ignorance to make her way in Washington. This wouldn’t be a problem if she had fun things to do, but by and large Elle’s days in Washington are less than exciting, filled as they are with the tiresome business of Washington politics, snap cups, meetings in hairdressers, chance meetings in the park and so on.

The reason for this is that the story is so weak, promoting a gimmick from the first film (ie. Bruiser) to the driving force behind Elle’s actions. And it just doesn’t work. Not only is Elle sillier (in a negative sense) than she ever was in the first film, but she, her friends, and the people she meets act in bizarre, entirely unbelievable ways to make sure Bruiser’s Bill makes progress: Libby Hauser turns from frumpy matron to giddy schoolgirl at the sight of a ring, while Stanford Marks’ hardline Republican is turned into an emotional wreck by the mere thought of his homosexual dog.

Newhart’s Sid is the cheapest of know-all devices (he’s been doorman/dog walker for thirty years, so is an expert on political manoeuvres and a Deep Throat to boot). And the idea that Elle’s friends Margot and Serena, heading a pack of cheerleading interns, would send Congressmen and Women fighting to sign the petition is simply ludicrous – the scene is toe-curlingly embarrassing. Moreover, when the film limply winds up with Elle’s winsome speech about ‘speaking up’, the animal rights agenda takes a back seat; and despite the accolade from the American Humane Association, what has Legally Blonde 2 actually done for the animal testing debate? Still going on, is it? Thought so. You could argue that the vacuous nature of the movie actually harms the issue (keeping dogs in handbags is good for them?), but Legally Blonde 2 isn’t substantial enough for anyone to take it seriously.

For all that – and the fact that Emmett is as much a non-character as ever, wedding or no wedding – and the fact that Jennifer Coolidge’s return as Paulette is crowd-pleasing nonsense – there are very occasional glimpses of a film which isn‘t terrible. Even if she has become stupid again, Witherspoon invests Elle with her usual likeability, and Newhart is always fabulous (I’ve loved him ever since The Rescuers). Also, Mary Lynn Rajskub wrings every ounce of comedy out of her small role as staffer Reena.

But the highlights (insert your own hairstyling pun here) are all too brief in a film that feels precisely like the rushed cash-in it is. That the original was turned into a musical is a bit surprising; that there’s a straight-to-video extension of the franchise, Legally Blondes, beggars belief. Do yourself a favour and stick to the original – or why not watch something a bit more taxing, like Miss Congeniality?!