Studio: STX Films
Director: Brian Henson
Writer: Todd Berger, Dee Austin Robertson
Producer: Brian Henson, Jeffrey Hayes, Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Joel McHale, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks
A disgraced detective must reteam with his former partner to find a killer targeting the stars of a puppet TV show.
Some might hate on “The Happytime Murders” sight unseen purely at a fundamental level. By design, the film features distinctly Henson-esque puppets misbehaving in outrageously lewd, crude, mean, and unclean manners. Prude parents or watchdog types who sanctify Sesame Street as sacred ground might misperceive it as disrespectful to the brands that that birthed them for Kermit-like creations to engage in sex, drugs, and murder, or any other salacious activity guaranteed to make Big Bird blush.
Alternatively, one can dislike “The Happytime Murders” for a far more practical reason. That reason being that the supposed “comedy” disastrously disappoints. This has nothing to do with irreverent attitude and everything to do with being executed awfully.
To be clear, I’m in the latter camp. I enjoy it when something I appreciated as a kid can reposition its appeal according to adult tastes, no matter how intentionally immature. I hoped the movie would make good on the promise of Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles” by being as close to an “official” perverted Muppets parody like only director Brian Henson’s pedigree could deliver. What I wanted was rowdy and raunchy. What I got was uncreative and unfunny.
The soft-boiled plot follows hard-boiled puppet Phil Philips, a disgraced detective currently slumming it as a gumshoe on the seedy side of Los Angeles. Here, humans don’t coexist with puppets so much as merely tolerate them. “Meat sacks” still find their fur and felt counterparts entertaining enough that 1990s sitcom “The Happytime Gang” achieved popularity equivalent to “Seinfeld.” Cast members have since hit hard times however, and those times are getting harder now that an unknown assassin has targeted each fallen star for execution.
Phil curiously has several connections to the case. When it seems like the murder mystery can’t get any more weirdly personal for the grimly gruff P.I., Phil becomes begrudgingly compelled to team with the irascible human who helped forcibly retire him from the LAPD: his former partner Detective Edwards.
Pairing a noir narrative with a bickering buddy conceit should dress the stage handily for antics, action, even intrigue. On paper, burnout puppets overdosing on prostitution, pornography, and cocaine sugar snorted through Twizzler straws lays down a uniquely cheeky concept for comedy. The production itself overdoses on talented actors and puppeteers comprising its cast.
Everyone, audience included, gets let down by an interminably terrible screenplay. “The Happytime Murders” presumptuously thinks its novelty factor can sustain a full feature film, yet there isn’t remotely enough quality content to keep it from consistently scraping the ground.
There’s no use shaming the writers by name. For one thing, it isn’t entirely clear how to distribute blame. Two people receive formal writing credit, presumably according to WGA guidelines, though trade papers have repeatedly mentioned two additional writers for various drafts and cited producer/star Melissa McCarthy for additional contributions.
Also, there’s no reason to believe that what made it to the screen came from a singular source. Mainly because if it did, I can’t conceivably fathom what attracted anyone to this shooting script aside from the basic premise of puppets behaving badly, which sounds inherently funny in theory. At the very least, numerous agents should have received angry phone calls as soon as the final cut had its first screening.
Here you have skilled sketch and stand-up comics ranging from top-billed stars like Joel McHale and Elizabeth Banks all the way down to supporting performances from Fortune Feimster and “MADtv’s” Michael McDonald. Bizarrely, almost everyone portrays a plain person with only the briefest flash of personality. McHale’s FBI agent is unremarkable to the point of being nearly unnecessary. McDonald’s shyster producer could only be flatter if his monotone got somehow quieter. Actors appear completely bored at best and thoroughly confused why they are even involved at worst.
Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph wring a little desperate dampness from largely dry sponges of attempted silliness. McCarthy appears to improvise in several scenes, with some of her trademark off-the-cuff guff registering a couple of quick smirks. On the whole, the filmmakers evidently didn’t allot enough takes to wait out more happenstance ha-has capable of earning true chuckles. They seem to hope serendipity will craft comedy out of thin air, as the writing that made it into the movie isn’t interested in architecting anything other than a flimsy foundation for poop and promiscuity jokes.
It’s like someone only made sure to complete a checklist of “what would be shocking for a puppet to say or do” nonsense, e.g. masturbating, swearing, drinking, smoking, gambling, water sports, and oral sex, instead of constructing a solid story to motivate comedic moments through substance. Such setups could be hilarious when worked integrally into a screenplay that doesn’t simply employ them independently as irrelevant one-offs. In circumstances like these, where bare minimum fiction connects a strictly linear path to the fastest finish possible, juvenile humor can’t help but ring hollow.
Silly string standing in for puppet ejaculate works great as a casual visual. Too bad the movie makes it the centerpiece of a 45-second sequence, which is 42 seconds longer than the gag needs. After “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” and “Call Me Maybe,” I lost track of how many goofs rely on momentary music cues, which is not at all indicative of clever comedy. “The Happytime Murders” constantly swings exclusively at the lowest hanging fruit, yet consistently comes up with misses anyway.
Overall emptiness probably explains why multiple stars dropped in and then dropped out during the film’s decade of development. Dating back to the first formal announcement in 2008, Cameron Diaz, Katherine Heigl, and Jamie Foxx are just the publicly known names who reconsidered possible appearances before wisely moving on. Rights changed hands and revisions took place several times over that period too. A conceptually compelling kernel obviously existed somewhere in this quicksand, but the end product never found a way to satisfyingly pop its potential.
I can count the times I smiled on a three-fingered puppet hand. Rabbit Mr. Bumblypants pooping plastic Easter eggs, inbred desert twins shrieking into a mirror, and “pilafing,” although I was so desperate for any meager laugh by that point, I’m stretching to count that last one.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone made king-sized careers out of applying media commonly associated with children to scat humor and satire. They did so by continually coming up with 20+ minutes of impudently mirthful material on a weekly basis. “The Happytime Murders” cannot conjure 90 seconds worth of laughs even though it had ten years to bake a 90-minute movie. That’s proof positive of a lamely dull misfire.
There’s a smart way to approach a lowbrow lampoon, and “The Happytime Murders” doesn’t know where that route lies. I went in eagerly anticipating a crassly taboo take on puppet preconceptions and came out badly wanting the movie to be better than it is. Should you choose to cruise into its black hole of humor, you’ll come out with the same wish.
Review Score: 40