Melissa McCarthy and Bill Barretta in The Happytime Murders
Puppets do not, by my estimation, factor very prominently in the pop cultural landscape. As recently as 15 years ago, they were a fairly common staple of children’s programming; these days, not so much. To make a movie that bases much of its humour on upending our expectations of these loveable fuzzy creatures in 2018 therefore feels a little off, somehow.
The Happytime Murders isn’t basing its broadly parodic cop-movie aesthetic on any kind of nostalgia — it’s straight up presenting a world where puppets jizz all over the place, do lines and get their heads shotgunned off as some kind of necessary antidote to the apparent proliferation of sickly sweet, children-oriented programming starring colourful felt creations. The Happytime Murders is Not Your (Leather) Daddy’s Muppets, a comedic concept that proves to have very tiny (some may say puppet-sized) comedic legs.
Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a former cop turned low-rent PI; he experienced some measure of fame and success when he became the first ever puppet to join the police force. You see, in the world of this film, puppets are second-class citizens that only recently entered civilization after hundreds of years of being considered solely shucking-and-jiving entertainers. (The racial implications of this set-up are — perhaps mercifully — mostly unexplored, although why even raise the point? The Happytime Murders asks questions; it does not provide answers.) Phil lost his job after an incident in which he was seen to be prioritizing puppet lives over that of his partner Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who he is no longer on speaking terms with.
Part of what favoured puppet inclusion was a corny sitcom called The Happytime Gang, which paired a crew of puppets with one human actress (Elizabeth Banks), a former flame of Phil’s. When Phil is tasked by a nymphomaniac femme fatale (Dorien Davies) to investigate anonymous threats she has been receiving, Phil winds up caught in the crossfire in a porn-shop gangland execution that he thinks was targeting Mr. Bumblypants (Kevin Clash), a former actor on The Happytime Gang. When Phil’s own brother (the lead on the show) turns up dead, he’s reluctantly roped back into the force by his old lieutenant (Leslie David Baker) and forced to team up with Edwards once again to solve the murders.
Based on the elements at play here, it seems screenwriter Todd Berger has had a draft of this kicking around since the early aughts: it’s all sub-South Park ideas of what’s shocking and subversive. Porn, drugs, ball jokes, dick jokes, a furry-puppet-vagina Basic Instinct joke, prostitution, anal sex, mass ejaculation etc. are generally what’s on The Happytime Murders’ mind, so much so that the film often lingers on images that aren’t particularly hilarious (a porn video consisting of a dog puppet dominatrix asking a bound-and-gagged man to bark, roll over, etc.) and revels in them at length, adding little more comedy than just a general sense of “get a load of this twisted shit!” It certainly doesn’t help that Peter Jackson already went through all of this three decades ago with Meet the Feebles (not to mention the smash hit stage show Avenue Q, and Crank Yankers for that matter) — while I’d venture that three decades is more than enough time between attempts at filthy puppet comedy, The Happytime Murders proves there isn’t that much more left to explore.
It also doesn’t help that the film is curiously plot-obsessed for a comedy whose big setpiece is the main character jizzing silly string for what seems like the better part of a day. The whole neo-noir, hard-drinking fallen cop thing isn’t just a pretext for some jokes about how puppets go about living their daily lives; it’s also the springboard for an extremely boring and surprisingly twisty crime investigation story that gets bogged down in details and detective clichés. Although it barely clocks in at 75 minutes, The Happytime Murders plods along haphazardly with altogether way too much concern for clues and suspects and other things that in no way help sell the jokes.
On the other hand, the puppeteering is genuinely impressive. Stemming directly from the Henson company (the film is, in fact, directed by his son Brian), it presents some very sophisticated puppeteering and some very advanced performances — but to what end? Much of The Happytime Murders has a weird blow-off-steam quality, as if the best way for these guys (who have spent their lives developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for which they will almost certainly not be directly recognized) to work a little blue material into a life spent teaching lessons is to work tirelessly at putting together a bunch of jokes that would’ve felt hack in Team America: World Police a decade-and-a-half ago. It’s like The Aristocrats for guys who have spent their entire career pretend-laughing at strangers who tell them they stick their hands up asses for a living, which I find both sort of noble and deeply depressing.
I imagine it’s thankless work being a puppeteer, but The Happytime Murders proves even more thankless as a vehicle for that puppeteering. Apart from a handful of scenes featuring Maya Rudolph as Phil’s secretary Bubbles, most of it lands with a thud. It engages in mostly nonsensical world-building (I don’t know how it’s possible for the puppets to have sex with humans or die from a bullet in the head considering it’s stated over and over that they can’t feel anything because they’re filled with stuffing) and rides lame-ass street jokes (“Asshole says what” is a fucking RUNNING GAG in this movie) down to the bone.
It’s mostly unfunny but also surprisingly not trying to be funny nearly as much as it should, and I think I’m throwing it a bone because it seems like the biggest combination of effort and lack of effort I can imagine. The credits reveal that it often requires, like, five or six people to create some of the more unusual puppet movements (like, as you may have guessed, jizzing or getting bit in the dick). It seems like so much work — so much subtle work, refined over decades — for a movie that I’ve already mostly started to forget. I’d like for it to do well enough that they try another one of these that isn’t just about an octopus jerking off a cow (which happens) and Melissa McCarthy being addicted to sugar because she has a puppet liver (which happens), but it won’t. All of it was for nothing. What a bummer. ■
The Happytime Murders opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 24. Watch the trailer here: