'Divergent' and 'Muppets Most Wanted'

The Current Cinema: ‘Divergent’ and ‘Muppets Most Wanted,’ Two Sides of the Same Coin

Like the recently-released Veronica Mars, both Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted function best for those who are devoted fans of the source material.

Divergent is based on the first installment in a trilogy of novels by Veronica Mars, set in a dystopian future (about a century hence) in which humanity is divided into five “factions,” based on personality types. Make that ‘a small segment of humanity,’ because the action takes place in Chicago, encircled by a huge wall to protect it from the other survivors of the apocalyptic war that wiped out much of the population. Those within the walls established the faction system, supposedly to keep the peace. Everyone is born into a faction, but upon reaching the age of maturity, individuals may choose to switch to another faction, though that means leaving behind their family members, because this society believes in “faction before blood.”

It’s not quite “bros before hos,” but it’s equally repressive. And it’s also about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of; it’s incredibly reductive to imagine any population that would support being divided into such a system. As well, there are many contradictions that arise — for one thing, despite all the lip service given to the overriding idea that everyone must accept their place in the system, nearly every key character has chosen to switch to a different faction from the one they were born into.

Even if one can swallow that load of bollocks, however, there is the rest of the film. The balance of the running time is spent regurgitating the setup of the faction system, alternating with endless training sequences that show no spark of imagination. Our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), chooses to leave her native faction, the Abdegnation, and her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) in favor of the Dauntless. The former faction is selfless, charitable, and self-denying, and serve as the ruling party, while the latter is excitable and fearless, intended to serve as law enforcement and military operatives. Thus they engage in a great deal of physical training, which consists almost entirely of long-range shooting, exercising, and boxing. It’s all rather dull, and never seems to lead anywhere; we’re told that Tris — as Beatrice prefers to be known — is moving up the ranks of her class of initiates, but it’s hard to see much difference on screen.

In similar rudimentary fashion, Tris develops a romantic interest in Four (Theo James), the training leader, but there is little chemistry between the characters. As the Dauntless training progresses, Tris and the others are tested as to their fitness through injection of a drug that causes hallucinations; the hallucinations are meant to illustrate their individual fears, but those are depicted without much life or imagination.

Eventually, all the talking and training comes to a head with an extended action sequence, but, quite frankly, by that point I had lost any rooting interest for the characters. It’s easy to imagine that readers of Ms. Roth’s book(s) will get more out of the movie, but it’s presented so listlessly that even they might nod off without missing anything that’s essential.

It’s worth noting that Kate Winslet appears without making much of any impression. The same can be said of the entire cast — including Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Pfeiffer, and Maggie Q — who are all defeated by material that feels like an endless prologue; I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the movie to begin. Divergent never ignites, and certainly fails to whip up any enthusiasm for future installments.

Meanwhile, Muppets Most Wanted coasts into theaters on the wave of genial goodwill generated by 2011’s The Muppets, which effectively re-booted the beloved puppets for more big-screen adventures. Director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller have returned (minus Jason Segel and Amy Adams), picking up the story immediately following the previous film.

The new installment is suitably enjoyable, though it’s only fitfully amusing. It feels obligatory rather than essential, a sequel churned out for an economic rather than creative imperative. Now, admittedly, nearly every movie is motivated by an underlying desire to reach as many people as possible and (hopefully) make a profit, and that doesn’t preclude a movie such as Muppets Most Wanted from being a fruitful endeavor.

Yet it’s paced in an indifferent manner that prevents it from building up a healthy head of steam. For an adventure that’s aimed primarily at children, it dawdles too much; for adults, it might even test their patience. Again, it seems to take advantage of its assumed built-in audience, but not everyone grew up watching the Muppets on television, and without that nostalgia factor to buoy it up, the movie falls flat far too often to engage fully.

It put-puts along like the tiny European car driven by Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell), a character whose accent may have been inspired by Peter Sellers’ turn as Inspector Clousseau in the Pink Panther films. The effect, and the humor, is minimal. Tina Fey does not fare much better as Nadya, the leader of the prison guards at a Gulag where Kermit the Frog is mistakenly sent.

Thus, it’s up to Ricky Gervais as a criminal posing as promoter Dominic Badguy to bridge the multiple episodes. He tones down his acerbic nature for the role, of course, because this is a movie for kids; without that nasty cynical bite, however, he’s simply a vaguely familiar human being surrounded by puppets.

Again, I have no doubt that lifelong fans of the Muppets are likely to be delighted, and the movie is definitely critic-proof when it comes to children, who take their fitful amusement wherever they can find it. As an adult who’s enjoyed the Muppets intermittently, Muppets Most Wanted feels like it should be much, much better in order to be truly captivating.

Both Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted open wide across the Metroplex on Friday, March 21.