by Philip Price
I liked “Sausage Party.” I feel like I should say that up front because I don't want to seem like I'm easily offended or that I can't take a dirty joke when I say that “The Happytime Murders” is a pile of shit. Also, while I haven't seen Peter Jackson's 1989 comedy/musical/parody “Meet the Feebles” which in and of itself seems to have been exactly what “The Happytime Murders” purports to be, I have seen “Team America: World Police” and after now having seen Brian Henson's (son of Jim and a director in his own right having made “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island”) twist on what it might be like if the puppets he grew up with grew up with him I feel rather confident in saying that I don't need another example of how funny it can be when bedrocks of childhood suddenly come to possess the most adult of behaviors with the crudest of takes on those behaviors. I say this because 1) ‘Team America’ accomplished as much in balancing tone, humor, substance, and conveying it all through these objects not typically intended to be taken seriously with the sly genius of it hidden in the fact it had something to say and 2) because “The Happytime Murders” is rarely if ever actually funny. And I mean that not in the way that there are a few chuckles to be had here and there throughout the slim 90-minute runtime, but rather that I didn't laugh once the entire time. The most pleasure to come out of sitting through this one-note joke of a "movie" is the small, sporadic flourishes of creativity that comes in adapting these puppets who know they're puppets into the real world and the humorous ways in which Henson, his team, and screenwriter Todd Berger integrate them. That said, there are maybe two moments in which the creativity of such integrations are funny enough to garner a smirk, but beyond this “The Happytime Murders” functions as an uninteresting whodunit that doesn't attempt to add weight to its narrative or not-so-subtle allegory dealing in prejudice and discrimination as it hangs its hat solely on the joke of kid toys being dirty-except it isn't a funny joke.
“The Happytime Murders” deals with the puppet cast of an '80s children's TV show that begins to be picked off one by one the likes of which includes the brother of a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye who takes on the case. PI puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) was once the only puppet on the police force, but after a criminal took his human partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), hostage and Phillips failed to shoot the puppet perp committing the crime he was removed from the force and sentenced to a life lived via the tropes of film noir. Phillips is given a new case to work by the sultry and sex-obsessed puppet, Sandra (Dorien Davies), who claims to be getting anonymous letters threatening to expose a secret if she doesn't do one thing or another by a certain time, but as Phillips begins to follow nonsensical clues that would seem to have no bearing on actually catching a culprit the murders of the "The Happytime Gang" members begin-and begin conveniently where Phillips just so happens to be investigating (an adult entertainment store, in case you were wondering). Because of a murder taking place, Phillips being a witness, and the police showing up Phillips' former Lieutenant, Banning (Leslie David Baker), decides to assign McCarthy's Edwards to work the case pairing her up with Phillips who will work as an advisor on the case given his connections to "The Happytime Gang". This is all well and good and I'd be lying if I said there weren't a few moments of genuine intrigue via the murder/mystery aspect of it all as Phillips and Edwards begin to track down the surviving members of the TV show's cast in order to find out why someone might be killing them, but while the intrigue is there Berger and his screenplay never utilize anything about their concept to enhance these buddy-cop tropes we've seen play out before. One might imagine that with the conceit of the movie being what is essentially a film noir, but with puppets that they might use the puppets in ways that not only make such conventions of the genre funnier, but that they might also use the puppets to upend certain conventions. “The Happytime Murders” often decides to do neither and so the movie just sits there with so much potential to take off in a certain, more satisfying direction, but never does.
Believe it or not, “The Happytime Murders” also shares a common thread with “Black Panther” from earlier this year as it decides to also employ what is an empathetic villain. That though, is where the comparisons come to an end. Ryan Coogler's film created an empathetic villain out of Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger by giving him a perspective the audience could relate to and one that essentially forces the hero of that story to change his beliefs. Of course, it's how far Killmonger takes things through his perspective and not solely his perspective that make him a villain and the same can be said for who turns out to be the antagonist in “The Happytime Murders” with the difference being that this individual teaches Phillips little more than the fact he can unload-in more ways than one. There is an insane amount of sympathy to be had for the antagonist in terms of both from the audience and from the characters on screen-namely the assigned protagonists-but the layers of complicated dynamics between the two and where the screenwriter could have delved into giving Phillips this kind of moral dilemma that explored having to pay for his sins through the death of his brother or enacting justice for his brother on an individual whose life and innocence were stolen from them only to have that loss morph into a thirst for revenge is wasted. And so, not only do “The Happytime Murders” not capitalize on its outwardly funny and undeniably intriguing premise, but it doesn't even take advantage of its own juicy drama that it sets up for itself; there is no desire to explore the depths of the characters-human or puppet-and by extension no effort given to developing this world where puppets and humans have come to co-exist, but still harbor enough resentment towards one another so as to claim a light allegorical comment on real world issues of hate and discrimination. At this point in the review it's likely to be thought that the movie wasn't intended to be anything more than a light comedy where puppets were employed to do vulgar things because puppets are typically associated with children and children's entertainment re-purposed for adults is inherently funny and maybe all of these character and dramatic shortcomings could be forgiven were the movie actually humorous, but Berger seemingly put as much effort into the comedy of his "comedy" as he did everything else leaving it all to fail.
In all honesty it feels as if more time and effort have gone into my writing of this review than it feels went into the writing of this screenplay and that's ultimately not as frustrating because of the loss of my own time or dedicated thought on the subject, but rather because I was initially excited to see “The Happytime Murders” and what Henson might do with this concept of taking cues from his and his father's past work, mixing them with something like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and then pushing the boundaries of both into the realm of an R-rated comedy, but to see such empty and joyless fruit be born from that initial idea is not only disappointing, but indeed frustrating. All of that said, it should be noted in some capacity that the human players here are largely wasted, but ironically come to be the best parts of the overall experience. Whatever your opinions of McCarthy might be I think she's a genuinely funny comedian and a gifted actor to boot who-when paired with the right material and co-stars-can really elevate a comedy to another level. She and husband/director Ben Falcone (who has a brief cameo here providing one of the few genuine laughs) accomplished as much earlier this summer with “Life of the Party,” but McCarthy's role of Edwards literally could have been filled by anyone else who might have brought the same fervor (or lack thereof) and comedic timing that McCarthy puts on display here. As seen in “Bridesmaids” and the just mentioned “Life of the Party” McCarthy and Maya Rudolph clearly have great affection and appreciation for one another and I would love to see the two of them in a buddy comedy of their own with a premise they could rally around and a strong script that would serve to flourish mountains of golden improv, but the fact the conceit of this film is centered around the puppets and it is the McCarthy/Rudolph moments that prove to have the better track record in terms of laughs doesn't bode well for what “The Happytime Murders” were intended to be. And that sucks, it really does, because it's clear people like Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale and Michael McDonald are here because they were intrigued by the idea of what this movie could be despite this reality not measuring up to what those initial ideas or ambitions might have been. I understand that “The Happytime Murders” is supposed to be a stupid comedy if that is one’s defense for it, but there is "stupid" and there is "stupid funny" and ‘Happytime’ is just stupid.