Review by LL Soares
So who is the target audience for a movie about dirty puppets? I guess that would be me. So I went to see the new Melissa McCarthy/foul-mouthed puppets movie THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018), directed by Brian Henson (son of the revered Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets).
The thing is, though, puppets who talk dirty and have sex aren’t anything new. There have been several movies and TV shows to take this concept and run with it, including Peter Jackson’s early film MEET THE FEEBLES (1989), which pretty much sent the standard, along with movies like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004) and Seth MacFarlane’s TED (2012), and TV shows like GREG THE BUNNY (2002 – 2004), CRANK YANKERS (2002 – 2007) and the wonderfully subversive WONDER SHOWZEN (2005 – 2006). And we can throw in Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and his many appearances, just for the hell of it.
Since the idea of putting silly puppets in more adult-oriented comedy situations isn’t new, then, if you’re going to attempt it, it’s probably a good idea to bring something new to the table. HAPPYTIME doesn’t really up the ante at all. There are a couple of supposedly “shocking” scenes, involving a puppet ejaculating silly string (which, if you saw the trailer, was spoiled for you before you even saw the movie) and a female puppet re-enacting the leg-crossing scene from BASIC INSTINCT (1992). And that’s about it for surprises. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of puppets swearing, which loses its charm pretty quickly.
This isn’t just a puppet movie, though. It’s also the new Melissa McCarthy comedy, and frankly she’s one of the few things that works. She’s doing a more superficial version of her character from THE HEAT (2013) here, and while her performance isn’t shake-the-rafters-hilarious, she at least remains likeable enough.
In this one, McCarthy plays Detective Connie Edwards, who tries to come off as gruff, but who, beneath the exterior, is a softie. She used to be partnered with Phil Philips (performed by puppeteer Bill Barretta), the first puppet allowed to serve on the human police force, but something went wrong in a hostage situation and Philips was stripped of his badge, bringing dishonor to puppetkind, as well as Edwards.
Nowadays, Philips is a tough-talking private eye. One of his most recent case involves the murders of members of The Happytime Gang, a group of puppets (and one human) who had a hit TV sitcom. One of the stars is Phil’s brother, Larry (Victor Yerrid). Both Phil and Larry look like generic Muppet characters, but Phil is blue and his brother has used his cash to bleach himself white. This isn’t the only reference to race in the movie, as puppets are presented as the new minority to be routinely discriminated against in the world of our film.
Remember I mentioned one human who was in the Happytime Gang? That was Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), who is also Phil’s ex. She’s a stripper in a club that caters mostly to puppets, rabbits especially.
So someone is knocking off the Happytime Gang, just as their show is about to be bought for syndication. The contract everyone signed says that if cast members die, but don’t have heirs, then the money will be split among the survivors, so it’s clear someone is looking for a big payday.
Also part of the Phil storyline are Sandra (Dorien Davies), a sultry puppet who hires Phil early on to help her with a blackmail situation, and Bubbles (a funny Maya Rudolph), his human secretary who secretly has a crush on him.
Connie answers to her human boss, Lieutenant Banning (Leslie David Baker), but also has to contend with a gung-ho FBI guy named Agent Campbell (Joel McHale), who keeps getting in the way of her investigation. Yep, she’s investigating the same murders that claimed Phil’s brother, so the two ex-partners are more or less partnering up again.
There’s also a lot of drug use in the film, except, since these are puppets, the drug of choice is pure sugar. Due to a medical secret of her own, Detective Edwards has taken to swigging maple syrup by the jug-ful and there’s a scene where she snorts high-grade sugar through a licorice straw that is good for a chuckle or two.
But a few chuckles is likely all you’re going to get. In the movie theater where I saw the film, the audience, for the most part, was pretty quiet. If you judge a comedy by the amount of laughs it gets, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is a bit of a dud. However, though I didn’t hurt myself laughing, I have to admit that I didn’t hate the movie. I still find McCarthy likeable enough (and this isn’t the first time she’s been in a comedy that wasn’t all that funny – remember 2014’s TAMMY?), and the plot kept me interested. I liked Phil Phillips, too, even if he was kind of bland (it would have been funnier if they had made him a lot more aggressive, a la Mike Hammer), and Maya Rudolph is maybe the best thing in the movie as loyal secretary Bubbles. The rest of the human cast is okay, but this isn’t going to be at the top of their resumes, and most of the puppets are kind of forgettable.
Since this dirty puppet concept has been done before, you really need to up your game if you’re going to do something new and memorable with the genre, and Brian Henson hasn’t done that. He’s a capable enough director (most of his directing credits are episodes of TV shows like THE SKRUMPS, 2007, and SID THE SCIENCE KID, 2008 -2015, and he was also an executive producer of the Syfy Channel show FARSCAPE, 1999 – 2003, which I liked a lot) and his heart’s in the right place (the idea of Jim Henson’s son making something subversive like this is funnier as an idea than as the actual film). The real culprit though is screenwriter Todd Berger (his script is based on a “story” by himself and Dee Austin Robertson). Berger’s credits include writing THE SMURFS: THE LEGEND OF SMURFY HOLLOW (2013) and KUNG FU PANDA: SECRETS OF THE MASTERS (2011), so he has a background in kids’ entertainment; he just doesn’t know how to write a script that’s funny for adults, too, I guess. The plot’s okay, but the laughs are rare.
Like the TED movies, I thought that the idea of this one was funnier than what we see onscreen, and I really wish Mr. Henson and his team had REALLY gone all the way with the R-rating. It’s a lot wimpier than I expected, but while it’s a failure as a comedy, I still had an okay time watching it, so I’ll give it one and a half knives. You won’t hurt yourself laughing at this one, but I didn’t think it’s completely horrible, either.
© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – one and a half knives