Mark Reviews Movies

The Happytime Murders


1 Star (out of 4)

Director: Brian Henson

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale, the voices of Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Victor Yerrid, Drew Massey

MPAA Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 8/24/18

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 23, 2018

The puppets swear and have sex. They swear and drink and smoke, and they also do drugs and swear some more. That's the joke.

To be fair, the initial contrast of seeing these puppets, which look of the sort that might have appeared in one of the kid-friendly shows or movies from director Brian Henson's famous puppeteer father Jim Henson, doing such decidedly adult actions is kind of funny for about five minutes. It's mildly amusing for another five minutes after that. Around that point, though, it becomes clear that the people behind The Happytime Murders haven't thought of anything else to do with the movie's premise, so the puppets snort some more glittery powder and blow increasingly larger clouds of smoke into someone's face and drop many more naughty words.

There's really nothing else to the movie's one-joke setup. The back story is that humans and puppets exist together in the real world. Humanity has eliminated divisions based on race, ethnicity, and creed, because they're all united in the unabashed hatred for puppets.

There's no logic as to why such overt hatred exists, since all of these puppets basically have the personalities of human beings. They look different, but they rarely act differently, except for a cheap gag or two—such as when, after having sex with another puppet, our puppet P.I. protagonist lets loose with a seemingly endless stream of plastic string from his nether regions. This, obviously, occurs well past the 10 minutes of the movie that are kind of funny or mildly amusing.

It might seem odd to point out that the puppets in the movie don't ever seem like puppets. Obviously, they are like puppets, but what, other than appearance, actually sets them apart from their human counterparts?

Our hero, for example, is a washed-up, former police officer named Phil Philips (performed by Bill Barretta). He was the first and last puppet allowed to join the Los Angeles Police Department, and after his disastrous handling of a hostage situation, he has become a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking investigator for hire. That's it. He has no quirks, other than the fact that he's a blue, three-foot-something puppet.

Apparently, Henson, screenwriter Todd Berger, and the rest of the creative team believed that broad types like Phil would instantly and effortlessly translate into comic gold, simply by turning them into puppets. There's nothing kooky, cute, or decidedly weird about any of them— you know, as we'd expect from a bunch of puppets who, even in the movie's world, exist to make people laugh. They're not even irritating in any way that would elicit the whole of humanity to treat them so poorly. Instead, we get a whole cast of generic types, like Phil's brother Larry (performed by Victor Yerrid), a has-been actor who's coasting on the fame of a two-decades-old TV show, and Sandra (performed by Dorien Davies), a typical femme fatale who walks into Phil's office with a blackmail mystery.

The mystery eventually leads to the discovery of a plot to murder the stars of that old TV show. Tagging along for the case is Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), Phil's former partner on the force, who has a puppet liver (the result of that botched hostage situation) and an addiction to sugar. The plot, strangely, is treated with dreary seriousness, as if Henson believed in his puppet cast too much and forgot that this is supposed to be an odd comedy.

If the puppets—the stars and the only reason that the movie exists—aren't funny, it's almost pointless to note that McCarthy and her fellow human players are given even less to do. McCarthy yells and swears and drinks maple syrup from the bottle, while Maya Rudolph, as Phil's secretary Bubbles, kind of puts on a funny voice and has an awkward series of seemingly improvised scenes with McCarthy. It almost seems unfair to mention that Elizabeth Banks appears as Phil's ex-girlfriend, who is now a stripper and, in the character's introductory scene, teases a trio of rabbits with a carrot.

It's embarrassing to watch how such a simple idea, rife with comic potential, goes nowhere, because everyone involved evidently believed that the idea itself was enough. It's not, and adding insult to injury, The Happytime Murders ends with a series of outtakes and behind-the-scenes shenanigans, showing us how the filmmakers pulled off some of the puppet trickery. At times, the mystery of how they accomplished some of this stuff is the only thing keeping our interest, so it almost stands to reason that the filmmakers would ruin that for us, too.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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