‘The Happytime Murders’ shoots itself in the foot
Directed by: Brian Henson
Written by: Todd Berger
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, and Joel McHale
“The Happytime Murders” – “It ain’t a crime to be warm and fuzzy, but it might as well be.” – Private Investigator Phil Philips
Yes, society treats puppets as second-class citizens in 2018 Los Angeles. Puppets work, play and live with humans but are considered inferior or inherently subordinate, because their primary color fabric-exteriors and pillowy interiors make them different from people. This overt racism is now coupled with a recent puppet-killing spree, and Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) – a scorned former police detective - is determined to find the perpetrator.
Wait, is this a Muppet film? It is, but not a typical one, as director Brian Henson (“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) and “Muppet Treasure Island” (1996)) steps into the seedy, adult world of murder-mysteries and drug use. This adults-only, Muppet-meets-crime comedy is rated-R, and admittedly, it delivers some awfully big laughs. It takes chances, and the overall experience is an amusing curiosity, but the gritty tones do not exactly gel with the Muppets’ inherently comedic nature.
It just isn’t as fun as it should be.
The straight-forward plot follows heavy, traditional crime film themes, as Phil – a puppet - uncovers clues in unlikely places, feels regret from past mistakes and reconciles with old colleagues. One can easily predict the overall story arc, and therefore, the film’s obvious value rests with Henson’s creative Muppet-integration over a 91-minute runtime.
Of course, he includes his Muppets in unexpected places, and they delightfully arrive in all shapes and sizes, including a motley crew of poker-playing criminals, a Santa Monica Pier bodybuilder and a bunny rabbit with a porn addiction. A porn addiction? The visual ingenuity of the Muppets’ construction and the actual mechanics of bringing them to life never cease to amaze this critic, and the filmmakers solidly and wholly deliver in these spaces.
The Muppets and human characters – like Phil, his loyal secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and others surprisingly fill many spaces with curse words at a pace that almost rivals 1983’s “Scarface”.
Well, not quite that bad, but the cast swears a lot!
After the initial shock of seeing and hearing a Muppet expel the f-word within the movie’s first two minutes, the constant puppet-cursing soon loses its impact and does not serve a purpose, other than to tonally match with the downer-narrative.
Some stand-up comics receive similar criticism for delivering numerous obscenities that do not add substance to their acts. The adult cartoon-movie “Sausage Party” (2016) – about living and breathing grocery store items - runs into similar problems. Sure, a potato about to be peeled over a kitchen sink deserves to decry some verbal vomit, but excessive salty language is unnecessary during – basically - every conversation throughout 89 animated-minutes.
Speaking of conversations, “The Happytime Murders” features three very distasteful, riotous moments that will stir plenty of discussion. Depending on one’s point of view, these controversial scenes will either bring the down house or engender groans of disgust. (The first scene actually appears on-screen way too early, and it unfortunately lessens the impact of the most zany, over-the-top sequence in the second act.)
“The Happytime Murders” runs into discord in another way. Those said over-the-top high points are separated by frequent, long spaces of dull police-procedure mechanics and continued exploration around Phil’s angst and hopeful redemption. While strolling through the anticipated steps of a standard whodunnit, the film is in desperate need of pick-me-ups, and for some reason, music is noticeably absent. Some colorful song and dance numbers like “This Puppet has a Heart”, “Crime Pays Big Time” or “Muppets are People Too” could have filled those voids.
Hey, musical numbers work extremely well with Muppet features. Who could forget “Movin’ Right Along” from “The Muppet Movie” (1979)?
Looking into non-Muppet, rated-R territory, “Team America: World Police” (2004) is an infinitely-offensive, but highly-effective puppet film. “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone dive headfirst into provocative material, and they match the tone(s) with an absurd and hilarious soundtrack with lyrics like “Freedom isn’t free……Freedom costs a buck ‘o five.”
How about a musical number from “The Happytime Murders”? Ironically, as soon as the film ends, a catchy and enjoyable 80’s singalong blasts on-screen, and this music video with Muppets delivers the most gratifying three minutes of the entire picture.
What if Phil sang “It ain’t a crime to be warm and fuzzy, but it might as well be,” instead of moping about it?
Just a thought.