Brian Henson grew up on the Muppet-filled sets of his father Jim’s movies and TV shows, then followed in his footsteps, becoming a puppeteer and going on to helm The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppets Tonight, and Muppet Treasure Island. But Henson aims to step out of the shadow of his father with R-rated puppet-noir that’s stuffed with dirty jokes and littered with fluffy gore. Sadly, The Happytime Murders is deeply terrible, bringing nothing fresh or particularly fun to the Muppet legacy.
There’s no connection between The Happytime Murders and the Muppet movies, and no suggestion that Kermit and the gang exist in this film’s bleak world. Instead, Henson’s dark comedy borrows heavily from the tone and schtick of Robert Zemeckis’s masterful animation-meets-live-action crime caper Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It centers on puppet Phil Phillips (performed by longtime Muppet performer Bill Barretta) a world-weary private investigator who soured on inter-species relations once a case went fatally awry. His Los Angeles is one where puppets live alongside humans, but are treated like second-class citizens. They can’t get a cab, face blithe abuse at the hands of grabby children, and threats from snarling dogs who see them as living chew toys. The slur of “sock” is casually thrown about as their community’s felt and fluff is threatened by a serial killer who is targeting the former cast members of the groundbreaking puppet-centered ’90s sitcom Happytime Gang. “It’s not a crime to be warm and fuzzy,” Phil sneers in voiceover, “But it may as well be.”
In its promising opening, The Happytime Murders introduces thought-provoking parallels to real-world communities that are marginalized and dehumanized by institutional prejudices. But this intriguing socio-political thread is lost amid the messy mystery that forces Phil and his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), back together to crack this grisly case. There’s no love lost between these two, who spit insults, spew cigarette smoke, and chuck milkshakes at each other. But their abrasive chemistry never quite clicks as both lean into the same stereotype: gruff loner detective who doesn’t play by the rules. It doesn’t help that the jokes from screenwriter Todd Berger are coarse or tedious, or sometimes both, as is the case with a running gag of Edwards shouting, “An asshole says what?” (“What?” Ha ha ha?)
Much of the movie’s attempts at humor are based in shock value. The Happytime Murders expects you to be dropped jawed with guffaws as colorful puppets drop f-bombs, piss glitter, offer blow jobs for drug money, and watch octopus-on-cow tentacle porn. In short bursts, these outlandish visual gags are joltingly funny, but Henson’s comedic timing here and throughout is torturously slow. He lingers on scenes until they’re no longer shocking or fun, just strange and mirthless. I mean, just how much of a puppet-Dalmation dominatrix performing BDSM, watersports, and nipple torture on a chubby, shirtless man do we really need to see?
Walking out of The Happytime Murders, I suspected a keener cut could have exponentially helped the comedy bits, making for crisper punchlines. But the longer I sit with this movie, I realize that wouldn’t have saved it. Its murder mystery gets so tied up in roping in smutty sight gags and goofy graphic violence that its logic is a dangling afterthought. The grubby cast of characters are uninspired stereotypes (the besotted and bubbly secretary, the sultry femme fatale, the fallen starlet, the grizzled dick, the ball-busting boss, the perplexing junkie-informant) with no subversions. It’s as if the hook of dirty puppets was meant to be enough. But puppets have been behaving badly for years now, so it’s just not.
Perhaps most vexing, its anti-hero is just deeply uncompelling. Over 24 years, Barretta has given voice to a wide array of manic Muppets, from the Swedish Chef and Doctor Teeth, to Pepe the King Prawn and Dinosaur’s Earl Sinclair. But Phil Phillips is a puppet without passion or enthusiasm. He doesn’t mug with eager frustration like Kermit the Frog. He doesn’t cry out wide-mouthed in joy or pain. He’s a stoic, world-weary Muppet. He doesn’t give us much emotion or expression at all, aside from a dead-eye stare and occasionally flipped middle finger. That must have been a true challenge for Barretta, who tries to channel the rugged yet enchanting ennui of Humphrey Bogart but tapped instead into the bored yet aggressive machismo of Mark Wahlberg.
The Happytime Murders is devastatingly exasperating. Its curious concept had this critic cautiously optimistic. But despite ten years in development, this film is mangled on every level. Its story is meandering, its pacing clunky. Its jokes are tired, often relying on crude dialogue, and baffling running gags, like one where puppets keep assuming McCarthy is a man. (I guess because she wears a blazer and pants?) Characters are thinly sketched, and the climax’s reveals are completely confounding. (More on that next week.)
In behind-the-scenes footage shared during the credits, you can see all the hard work and enthusiasm that Henson and his crew put into this picture as they weave through specially made rigs in inventive puppeteering gear. A lot of love, ambition, and diligence went into making this. And so the real mystery of The Happytime Murders becomes: How did Henson make such a mess of it?
Header Image Source: STX Entertainment