I’m a massive Muppets fan, and while they haven’t always been featured in the best films, the pure fondness factor will earn a lot of latitude. When the trailer for The Happytime Murders first came along I was on cloud nine — a combination of gumshoe noir, a puppet-inhabited world, and set in a sex-fueled and hard-swearing R rating. It was a nearly custom-made film that would hit all of my favorite points. Unfortunately it turned out to be the insides of a waterlogged puppet — soggy, mushy, and without any heart.
Brian Henson‘s production company Henson Alternative produced The Happytime Murders for their first feature film, with Brian himself serving as director along with a script by Todd Berger.
In the film’s mythos, puppets exist in the world — and while they once were largely relegated to family-focused fluff television series, they’ve now expanded into society at large and into the wider workforce. Private Investigator Phil Philips had once been the first puppet to join a police force and rose quickly to the rank of detective alongside Detective Connie Edwards (played by Melissa McCarthy), only to be drummed out of the force after an arrest gone wrong.
Now he’s set up in classic gumshoe style with a small office over a store with a human secretary, Bubbles (played by another SNL alum, Maya Rudolph). When a series of puppet murders start happening to the cast of an old television show, Happytime, Philips, and Edwards are forced to partner back up to solve the case before all of the cast are blown to fluff.
The Happytime Murders relishes in its being unfettered by a family-leaning rating, so anytime something can swear, have a crude sex joke, or have a junky washed-up puppet doing lines of pixie stick glitter though a Red Vine, they don’t just step across the line — they go for a running long-jump across it. It’s not every day that you get a cute little bunny shopping for carrot-shaped vibrators in a porn store only to get blown to shreds.
The problem isn’t the fact that the humor is blue or that there’s puppet sex — it’s that it’s not done well. Most of the jokes fall flat (some will engender some laughs, but not regularly). The delivery is forced (both from the humans as well as the puppets), with there being little enthusiasm behind any of it. They could have gone with just a solid noir film and played it straight and just left the irony of there being puppets inhabiting the world — they would have wound up with such a better result. Instead they lean hard into the “let’s use this as a chance to talk about race relations,” angle. Then they immediately enforce stereotypes by not just having the humans treat the puppets like crap and say that they’re stupid or unable to do anything involving higher cognitive, but the puppets are played as mostly of limited intelligence and utility.
One thing is for sure: audiences won’t likely look at a can of silly string in the same way again anytime soon.
To its credit, the film at least is one of the first to let McCarthy play a role without resorting to her being a klutz. However, beyond that, sadly, the Henson magic was entirely absent. It should have been an open and shut case, but instead it’s guilty as charged. It’s worth going to the theater to see only if you have a Moviepass card that you haven’t cancelled yet and BlacKkKlansman is unavailable.
The Happytime Murders opens today, Friday, August 24th, 2018.
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