Review: The Happytime Murders

by Andrew Parker

Not much a of a foul mouthed comedy featuring dirty minded puppets and even less of a buddy cop picture, The Happytime Murders boasts a premise that should have been a home run, but instead settles for a handful of ground ball chuckles. With jokes that miss more often than they hit and gags that will elicit smiles rather than guffaws even at the their best, this adult oriented experiment from Brian Henson (son of Muppet pioneer Jim Henson) doesn’t hold back on the raunchiness, but the ingenuity to make something this unnecessarily threadbare into a satisfying experience is sorely lacking.

The Happytime Murders takes place in an alternate reality of Los Angeles where puppets are their own race of living creatures, walking and working amid their human counterparts. It’s a rough life for the felt skinned and fluffy stuffed. Dogs are a constant threat to health and safety. They’re constantly getting harassed and profiled by the cops. Puppets frequently live in poverty and find themselves discriminated against and bullied in human society. Disgraced ex-puppet-cop turned private eye Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) tries to stick up for puppet-kind whenever he can, but mostly he’s washed up. While investigating a case involving a female puppet who’s getting blackmailed, Phil unwittingly becomes caught up in a series of serial murders that are targeting the stars of a beloved 90s sitcom, including the detective’s brothr. The police look to Phil for help, but insist that he team up with human homicide cop Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), his former partner on the force who’s the reason he got kicked off the force in the first place.

It’s initially amusing to watch a bunch of puppets using colourful language, engaging in bizarre sexual activities, and seeing their heads explode into clouds of pillow poop after getting blown away with a shotgun blast. I say “amusing” and not “funny” because the sight of these things happening shows clear visual ingenuity and inventiveness, but not much of it is in service of a script that’s witty and smart enough to warrant such an effort. The Happytime Murders is a film that boasts a lot of technical accomplishments, but any truly boundary pushing material has been jettisoned in favour of a tiresome buddy cop premise that’s played relatively straight. Not only is The Happytime Murders not as hilarious as it could have been, but if one were to grade its merits as an action comedy, it’s borderline terrible.

The script from Todd Berger (It’s a Disaster) boasts one of the most cliché ridden, obvious, and ploddingly predictable stories of any film this year; one that begs to be parodied and not taken at face value. While Henson does his best to freshen things up with his ability to mount a gag, there’s no salvaging such deathly boring material. No amount of illicit puppet sex acts, jokes about sugar as a drug, profanity laced insults, or violent outbursts could ever cover up how little the script cares about creating a genuinely entertaining and weird movie. Even more insulting is a half-baked attempt to turn The Happytime Murders into some sort of racial allegory, with puppets functioning as people of colour in America. It’s a mixed metaphor to say the least, and one that’s jettisoned as soon as the mechanical serial murder plot kicks into gear.

There might have been something here at one point, but The Happytime Murders feels compromised for the sake of creating safer, more bankable fare. The actual mystery at the heart of Henson’s film is so painfully stupid, underwritten, and plot hole laden that I kept wishing someone would flip a switch, shut everything down, and just let the human and puppet co-stars adlib for ninety minutes about anything that isn’t the story. If they wanted a cop movie to take the piss out of that would have been funny with a puppet in one of the main roles, they should have gone with something closer to Training Day and not something eerily similar to the forgotten dud Hollywood Homicide. The Happytime Murders never gives the viewer a reason to care or feel for any of the characters or what they’re going through. It simply goes through the motions with zombie-like movement with the hopes that the cast and tech crew can pull something out of their ass.

And to the credit of Henson (delivering his first theatrically released outing since Muppet Treasure Island) and his cast, they do their absolute best to pull off the impossible. There are few performers who know their way around a dictionary full of curse words and childish insults like McCarthy, and I mean that as a high form of praise. Putting her opposite an equally tough talking (but not nearly as funny) puppet is a minor stroke of genius. The chemistry displayed by McCarthy and her blue skinned co-star manages to make some of the film’s most dire moments watchable. They interact appropriately like a pair of former best friends begrudgingly coming back together after years apart, and most of their best moments feel like ideas the performers came up with on the spot. For McCarthy, it’s a less disheveled take on the same character she played in The Heat, and since a sequel to that sleeper hit (which was also a pretty standard buddy cop picture) seems more unlikely by the day, this might be the closest audiences get to seeing the actress play an unhinged law enforcer. That’s a pretty sad statement.

The rest of the human and puppet cast don’t have much to do. None of them have enough screen time to make an impact, as The Happytime Murders maintains a slavish faithfulness to formula while getting from point A to point B with minimal storytelling effort. Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks pop up as Phil’s kind-hearted secretary and his stripper ex, respectively. The latter has nothing to do, and the former has ALMOST nothing to do, save for an amusing, but lackluster scene where she teams up with McCarthy to break into the suspected murderer’s house. The puppets are all cannon fodder here, except for Phil, with none of them getting more than a single scene each to shine before disappearing from the story altogether. There’s no depth here other than the core partnership. While that has its moments, and McCarthy and Barretta make it work the best way they can, no one else has a snowballs chance in hell of making an impression here.

I can’t say that I didn’t laugh during The Happytime Murders, but those moments of mirth and gleeful provocations are fleeting. There’s a good bit where a doped up McCarthy goes apeshit on a bunch of criminal puppets. A montage where Phil cleans up his partner’s apartment is funnier than it has any right to be. Most of the sight gags are worth a smile. Overall, none of this adds up to a good movie that’s bound to suffer in comparison to other bawdy puppet flicks like Meet the Feebles or Team America. While a movie about tough talking felt-ies doesn’t have to be as extreme as those examples, such a concept needs energy, enthusiasm, and ingenuity on every level to succeed. The cast and director do their part. It’s just a shame the writers and producers are asleep at the wheel.

The Happytime Murders opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, August 24, 2018.

Check out the trailer for The Happytime Murders:

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