THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS Review: Shane Black, But With Puppets (And Dumber)
"Somebody's goin' 'round, killin' puppets."
That's what some fuzzy little scumbag utters after puppet Private Investigator Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) finds himself at yet another crime scene littered with the soft innards of one of his fellow "feltie" kind. From the opening moment of this Henson Noir – a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? clone by way of the most perverse corners of Funny or Die's web skits – it's clear what sort of hyper-stylized universe we're visiting. Had Shane Black written the script in the late '80s/early '90s and the resulting picture partnered, say, Bruce Willis (as Phillips is essentially a Joe Hallenbeck type) with some sort of loose cannon detective, it wouldn't be tough to imagine this story of two ex-compatriots investigating a series of seemingly connected deaths being crafted entirely with human counterparts (it even has hard boiled voiced over!). It'd still undoubtedly be incredibly dumb, but the variations on all the themes usually explored in Black's pictures are present (including some un-PC racial commentary) to the point of willing parody.
Black's work was mostly a "buddy cop" extension of Walter Hill's dime-store action movie storytelling, and The Happytime Murders continues that filmic tradition by adding the gimmick of having one half of its investigating dicks be filled with fluff, and the other – Phillips' former partner on the force (as he was the only puppet officer in history) – a "meat sack". Melissa McCarthy's doing her weirdest Nick Nolte as Detective Connie Edwards, the no nonsense human assigned by a stereotypically gruff Lieutenant (The Office's Leslie David Baker) to sniff out this snuffer of stuffed people. Of course, the trail of pillowy bodies leads back to the entertainment industry, as they all seem to stem from a hit TV show titled The Happytime Gang, the former stars of which are now addicts and degenerates; including their human leader, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks) who currently swings nekkid on a pole instead of singing for children's delight.
Unfortunately, Todd Berger's script forgot to include more than one joke. Almost every gag contained in The Happytime Murders revolves a game of raunchy mad libs where you plug heinous acts into the blank left in this question: "wouldn't it be funny if a puppet ___________ ?" Example: "wouldn't it be funny if a puppet offered to blow you?" Or: "wouldn't it be funny if a puppet talked about prison rape?" Another would be: "wouldn't it be funny if a puppet jizzed silly string?" A few of these goofs are silly enough in a crassly juvenile fashion, yet once the movie includes a shot of a cow puppet getting jacked off and climaxing out of four different udders (disclaimer: I don't understand how puppet anatomy works, either) within its first fifteen minutes, you've basically heard this warped Raffi record's best single too early. By the time you learn the definition of "pilafing", you're probably over the whole exercise.
There's also an outlandish attempt at commentary on race relations that comes off more ham-fisted than Bright (when it really wants you to think it's Alien Nation). Puppet actors talk about bleaching their skin and hair so that they're more "acceptable" within this human dominated world. Meanwhile, one of the killings sees the masked assassin siccing a pack of little house dogs on one of his victims, which results in imagery torn straight out of the Civil Rights chapter of your high school Social Studies textbook. None of it really amounts to anything approaching a cohesive thesis statement, to the point that the viewer ponders if one of the script's earlier drafts – as the project's been bouncing around Hollywood for roughly a decade (including a PG-13 iteration), cycling through actresses such as Katherine Heigl and Cameron Diaz before landing McCarthy – was either more pointed regarding this element, or perhaps less (and half-heartedly beefed up to try and capitalize on a more socially conscious market).
Mildly scuzzy and lo-fi, Henson – who is, in fact, the son of Jim and hasn't directed a feature film in 22 years (since Muppet Treasure Island) – does a decent enough job directing both his feltie and meat bag performances (Maya Rudolph is especially goofy as Phil’s ditzy secretary), even if the combination of green screen and traditional puppeteering looks somewhat shoddy thanks to subpar digital cinematography. Given this late summer folly was made for a mere $10 million, this isn't entirely surprising. However, what is somewhat shocking is McCarthy veering into pure "profane doofus mode", subjecting herself to a barrage of awkward weight jokes before snorting purple "ecstasy" sugar (thanks to an injury, Edwards owns a puppet liver that allows her to get high as felties do). At this point, McCarthy's career is the tale of two diverging paths: one that allows her to really flex while playing human beings (Bridesmaids), and another where she bellows like a cartoon banshee and falls down on her butt (Identity Thief). The Happytime Murders follows the latter golden graham path to a rotten Candy LAnd.
Throughout the majority of the movie's runtime, this writer couldn't help but wonder if The Happytime Murders could've worked better as a web series or Adult Swim program, broken up into tiny chunks where the viewer can chuckle at these gross out yuks before re-watching old episodes of Squidbillies. As a barely eighty-minute feature, Henson's movie achieves a level of profound shrillness that would make the anti-comedy legends of Tim & Eric proud. Much like its New Zealand forefather – Peter Jackson's exponentially more demented Meet the Feebles – it's also possible something so wildly "not for anyone" in tone will eventually transform into a cult object in the coming years. Surely, there's still a market for something this screechingly mean spirited, especially once it reaches a Book of Henry level of critical revulsion. Time will only tell on that front, but as a first run feature, The Happytime Murders is doomed to score smack on Sesame Street's shadiest corner, so it can nod off and hope ironic viewers will at least eventually champion it.
The Happytime Murders is currently in theaters.