The Happytime Murders (Rated C)
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph
Genre: Comedy, Mystery/crime
According to the internet, he’s 39 years old.
Screenwriter Todd Berger, writer of the last two “King Fu Panda” films, is approaching 40. And Director Brian Henson – son of the legendary creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson, and current chairman of the Jim Henson Company – is even older at 54.
So, these are not exactly kids.
And thus, it is exceptionally hard to believe that someone who’s not a teenage freshman at an “Animal House”-type fraternity could be responsible for the nonsensical, ridiculous, decidedly juvenile garbage that is the new purported comedy, “The Happytime Murders”.
Henson is also a producer along with the film’s star 48-year old Melissa McCarthy, and her husband 45-year-old Ben Falcone, who makes a brief cameo.
In this very “adult” puppet story (which never uses the term “Muppet”), humans and puppets have an uneasy co-existence, with puppets functioning much like the X-Men and other mutants, often surviving and thriving in the dark, seedy underworld.
Detective Phil Philips is a down-on-his-luck puppet who used to work for the Los Angeles Police Department. When two puppets from an old TV show wind up dead, Phil suspects something is afoot and rejoins the LAPD as a consultant. Reunited with Connie Edwards (McCarthy), his former human partner, the bickering duo soon find themselves in a race against time to protect other former cast members before the killer strikes again.
To the chagrin of the wholesome, family-friendly Sesame Workshop, the film has been promoted as “No Sesame, All Street”. The film is from Henson Alternative, the Jim Henson Company’s label for grown folks.
And in theory, many of us can get behind the concept of slightly darker, raunchier stories involving usually decent Muppets and/or other puppets. That could explain the success of the starchier “Muppets Most Wanted” of 2014, with Kermit the Frog and his evil look-alike Constantine (and the millions of memes that inspired). Also, fans of the old TV show “Crank Yankers” know that puppets-behaving-badly can be a heck of a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, “The Happytime Murders” is less about being funny and more about being shocking. Some of the sight gags may garner a chuckle here and there, but for the most part, it’s just simply gross, with many weird and probably (hopefully) unintentional messages about fringe or minority groups that border on offensive.
Yes, the word “murder” is right there in the title, but that still doesn’t prepare you for the bombardment of puppets being brutally slaughtered (puppeticide?).
On top of learning that many puppets are battling substance addiction (sugar and maple syrup, apparently), we see puppet heads being blown off by shotguns, and puppets having all the stuffing violently ripped out of them.
If you are actually smiling right now, trust me that all sounds far funnier than what we see on screen.
Without a doubt though, things go too far when two puppets engage in the loudest and longest sexual act in recent comedy film memory, and the male puppet “releases” copious amounts of white Silly String for seemingly hours. Even the frat boys will say “enough is enough”!
Here’s the issue: someone associated with this production believes that if the puppets do something (anything) instead of humans, it will be seen as funny.
To the contrary, I contend that if you can find humans doing something funny, it could be made funnier if it’s done by puppets. However, if that action would never be seen as funny with a human, it absolutely would not be funny with a puppet!
As such, as few would find it hilarious to see a human be ripped to shreds by animals, only the most open-minded individuals would be amused by watching real dogs tear an anthropomorphic puppet to pieces as he screams and begs for his life.
Thankfully, we are spared from witnessing puppet rape – the one, solitary line this film appears unwilling to cross.
Lest you think I was expecting far too much from a dumb movie with puppets at the end of August, I assure you “The Happytime Murders” did not have to be this awful.
Beyond the over-the-top raunchiness, deeper problems involve the lead characters. Anti-hero Phil – Mr. Silly String himself – (played by puppeteer Bill Barretta) is supposed to be a film-noir type detective. But even so, there’s very little redeeming about him, and he’s not a very endearing puppet.
McCarthy is also a problem, and proves a point I made back in May following her likable but forgettable film “Life of the Party”; for every good picture she makes, she follows it up with a total dud. And this is one of the biggest duds of her career.
She’s essentially playing a very similar character to the slovenly detective she portrayed in the incredibly funny “The Heat”. But this far inferior picture lacks a sensible script and focus, and doesn’t give McCarthy a Sandra Bullock with whom she can feed off and spar.
McCarthy has absolutely no chemistry whatsoever with that silly puppet, and probably would have had better luck playing opposite a tree. It all contributes to “The Happytime Murders” being a painful, cringe-worthy waste of time. You’d likely only be happy when its ending (and yes, they make those type of “jokes” too).
If you’re looking for genuine laughs from puppets, might I suggest you instead go on YouTube and watch clips of “Sesame Street” from the 1970s or ‘80s. You can never be too old to appreciate that.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.