Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Brian Henson
Writer: Todd Berger
There are some moments in your life when you have to take a moment to stop, take a step back, and think introspectively about the choices that led you to where you are. It could be one of matured recognition where you’ve realised that you’re not as young as you used to be and that you’ve either changed completely or haven’t changed at all. It could be a moment of sober clarity in which you’ve suddenly found yourself in a bad situation like financial insolvency or a toxic relationship and are not quite sure how you got there or how you’re going to get out. It could also be the kind of moment where you wake up on the street on a cold winter morning covered in bruises and your own vomit for the umpteenth time and are starting to finally understand that you have a serious problem. I had such an experience as I was watching The Happytime Murders; I even remember the exact moment it happened. It was a Muppet sex scene where a puppet man ejaculated silly string around the entire room for what felt like eons while a puppet woman screamed in nymphomanic ecstasy. That was the instance where I had to take a deep look at my own life and question the choices that led me to the cinema that day.
How foolish and naïve I must have been when I first heard about the film and thought that a gritty, raunchy noir-comedy about Muppets (directed, no less, by Brian Henson, director of The Muppet Christmas Carol) had promise. A proposed marriage between the creative ingenuity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the uproarious shock value of Team America: World Police, this movie has absolutely none of the satirical wit that made both of those movies so much greater than their gimmicks. Instead The Happytime Murders feels more like if Sesame Street hired the obnoxious, self-proclaimed ‘class clown’ from your primary school to pen a remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown using humour that Family Guy would describe as juvenile. Whatever points or insights the movie might have made with its depiction of an alternate Los Angeles where humans and puppets struggle to co-exist are quickly brushed aside in order to make room for puppet porn, sugar snorting and whatever the Muppet equivalent of blood and gore is (fluff and felt?). It’s one thing for a film to neglect exploring its own allegory in any kind of interesting or worthwhile way because it’s so much more focused on being one-dimensionally crude and naughty. What really makes The Happytime Murders so completely insufferable is how agonisingly unfunny it is.
The story mainly follows private eye Phil Philips, a De-Niro-inspired puppet who goes about his day with the kind of world-weariness and cynicism we except from this type of character. He used to be a cop way back when and was the first puppet to ever join the force. You see, puppets have historically been considered second-class citizens in this world and there were many who saw Phil’s career as a progressive step forward for his people at a time when puppets were finally starting to make inroads to society. Another shining example of progress was the popular TV show The Happytime Gang, the first show on any major network to feature a predominantly puppet cast (including Phil’s brother Larry). But then things went wrong. While out on the job Phil failed to shoot a fluffy criminal while a human police officer was in danger, convincing the world that puppets were incapable of policing their own kind. The disgraced Phil was sacked and now he spends his melancholic days tailing adulterous husbands and two-bit crooks. That is until somebody starts targeting and murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang. That’s when Phil gets roped into a tale of death, deception, and demonstrably desperate and dreadful drollery that could not have ended soon enough.
Things soon escalate as the LAPD catches wind of the killing spree and they pair Phil up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Edwards, we learn, is the cop who was endangered by Phil’s inability to shoot a puppet criminal all those years ago and the foul-mouthed, hard-boiled police officer has not forgiven him. They reluctantly proceed with the investigation together and are led into the slums and back alleys of LA where R-rated puppet hijinks ensue. The movie operates under the notion that the mere subversion of the childhood tradition whereby we have these colourful animated characters engaging in activities we would normally associate with more mature genres will be enough to score the laughs they’re after. We therefore get treated to puppets swearing, puppets being mutilated or blown to bits, and puppets having sex; any deed that Kermit and his friends would never be allowed to perform on network television, it’s all enacted here and not a single gag scored as much as a titter out of me. It’s not that the humour is obscene or outrageous because I’ve laughed at plenty of outrageously obscene films before. It’s that the humour is so stupidly simple and groan-inducingly lame.
One thing that both Roger Rabbit and Team America did very well was building their humour around their stories and themes and using them to serve the larger points being made by their allegories. The Happytime Murders never gets that far because all of its humour amounts to puppets saying dirty things and performing dirty deeds. A puppet femme fatale introduces herself as a “sexual I’ma” as in “I’ma see it, I’ma fuck it”. Later there is an homage to Basic Instinct complete with puppet pubes. There’s even a scene where Phil wanders into the back room of a porno store to find a cow having eight of hear teats pleasured by an octopus. Each of these is a one-dimensional joke that serves no motivational or thematic purpose; they exist solely for the sake of making the movie as vulgar and graphic as possible. While Roger Rabbit had its share of throwaway gags and one-liners, it had just as many that were motivated in organic ways by theme and emotion, including and especially the palpable tension between the human characters and the Toons, and used them in smart and creative ways to add layers to the film, to draw you further into the world they had created and to provide the viewer with insights as well as laughs that served the movie’s overall allegory. The Happytime Murders never even attempts to dig deeper beneath the surface level tension that exists between humans and puppets, opting instead to try and distract us with tasteless joke after tasteless joke (oftentimes either sexist or homophobic) that serve no purpose other than to be tasteless. Even if the jokes were funny (which they aren’t), this movie still wouldn’t offer a fraction of the fulfilment one can get from the movies it’s trying to imitate.
What makes the movie feel more disappointing than merely disgusting and unpleasant is that the craft behind the scenes reveals that some genuine talent and creativity went into its making. In the film’s end-credits we are treated to some clips of the puppeteers at work, a sequence that is far more compelling and even humourous than anything that ended up in the finished product. The work that went into creating a world that these puppets could inhabit, achieving their most outlandish effects, and getting the puppets to interact with their human counterparts; these are all labours that deserve to be applied to a more worthy film. The same goes for the talented human actors whose performances are let down by the sheer absence of comedic material. McCarthy and her Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph, playing Phil’s devoted secretary Bubbles, manage to salvage some semblance of comedy in one of their scenes together by simply interacting with one another, but that’s as close as the movie ever gets to being genuinely amusing. That Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale were unable to do anything of note in the whole film should tell you how little they had to work with between them.
The film’s ultimate failing is that, despite how ‘edgy’ and ‘mature’ its content may seem, it is a fundamentally unimaginative and bland film. Because this movie aspires to be nothing more than a simplistic, one-note parody that builds the entirety of its humour around coarse language and gross imagery for their own fruitless sake, the movie is inherently self-defeating in its own banality. When compared to other films of greater ambition and depth that are infinitely better, funnier and more rewarding for their thought and complexity, the film is utterly astounding in its derivativeness. This film offers absolutely nothing even slightly new or original to the viewer nor does it have any contribution of worth to make that hasn’t already been made by the classics it so poorly copies except maybe as a barometer against which to measure their ingenuity. I don’t know exactly how many poor decisions and fundamental errors had to happen in order for me to end up in that cinema where I lost 90 minutes of my life to puppet BDSM and silly string ejaculation, but it was definitely one of the lowest points I have ever experienced as a moviegoer.