REVIEW – Puppets Run Amok, Toward a Lowbrow Rock Bottom, in R-rated “Happytime Murders”

by Joe Hammerschmidt

Like many kids, if not exactly most, I grew up with puppets, and even the higher-standard Muppets on TV through their multitude of incarnations. The middle ground discoverable in the material used to create their physical attributes and lend to their storied personalities is what makes them animated as they would human-like. A unique principle that has stayed ever constant, ever steady through the years, despite a handful of missteps where a fraction of the heart is sacrificed in likely rewrites. The Happytime Murders is, regrettably, one of those missteps where, in a time where only big-budget franchise fare may easily suck the remaining air out of the niche comedy brand director Brian Henson sticks close to, its costliness may only hurt the chances for further creative filmmaking of its type.

Human-puppet hybrid films where the two apparently coexist together, they are nothing new. Yet aside from the Muppets, only Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles could excel in merging two breathing creature forms without sacrificing any artistic integrity. The trailers for Happytime proposed a very raunchy followup to the kids who grew up with Follow that Bird and Muppets Take Manhattan. However, it’s easily too raunchy for its own good, even if the audience I was sitting with found every moment a singular hilarious experience. All spectacle and flash, but seriously lacking in grace, charm, and in the case of two rather sexual gags, dignity for certain animals.

A rather AU Los Angeles that can’t quite keep its years straight is the backdrop for what appears to be a starchy triage of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Heat, and Sausage Party. Phil Phillips (longtime Muppeteer Bill Barretta) plays coy as a former LAPD detective turned private eye, struggling to bounce back after a standoff misfire nearly crippled his career, and wounded his human partner, the cocky yet crude Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). The two are forced to butt heads again at the occurrence of a series of oddly connected murders involving the puppet cast of a popular 90s sitcom, The Happytime Gang. Phil’s brother, the famous actor of the family was among that talented ensemble whose syndication royalties had finally started to come in. Clearly the last one standing, the one with the most to lose could be the one most likely to commit the murder string. Only Phillips and Edwards, who hadn’t worked together in almost 10 years or so (again, timelines are kept extremely vague) are the closest to any truly qualified cop who could solve the case.

Even their shared professionalism, or lack thereof is no match for an insanely spotty compilation of sex-laden imagery, foul language, and even Miss McCarthy venturing way too far off the deep end in terms of her usual character strengths. The legendary star of Bridesmaids is indeed back in a capable R-rated part, but yet is left without substantial justification for her being involved, being the farthest away from top billing. If anything, it ought to be Barretta, perhaps best known for Pepe the Prawn and Dr. Teeth, easily delivering his max effort in giving a true puppet character depth and introspection, though not to the same degree of cleverness as Matt Vogel’s Kermit clone Constantine in Muppets Most Wanted. In a script handled with specific carelessness for puppet-centric heritage by Todd Berger and Dee Robertson (Holiday Road), so much goes wrong when trying to merge out of just a one-note plot-line, beefing up a trite load of filler material, or in more accurate terms, the trailer stretched out far too thin. So much time is wasted on putting on a show, the promise of a decent mismatched buddy cop comedy flies out the window the first time sex is even mentioned; consider it equal parts gratuitous and insipid. Such elements force their way, not allowing to blend organically with the cast, and their natural ability to properly invoke a comic reaction.

While McCarthy hits a brand new low in her career, given so little to show for her excess of screen time, the human supporting cast do excel with far less. Joel McHale cracks up a few decent jokes but is a small throwaway as an FBI agent assigned to the case, always getting on everyone’s nerves. Elizabeth Banks seducts, though with nervous hesitation as the lone human cast member on the Happytime series, turned a shady stripper for a predominantly lagomorph clientele. Maya Rudolph indirectly reunites with McCarthy, their second shared credit this year after Life of the Party, working closely with Phillips as his stereotypical secretary, lilted voice and all. The only one not used most as decoration and could be taken seriously was Leslie David Baker, forever known for Stanley on The Office, serving as the den father to both Phillips and Edwards, interjecting in their aggressive back-and-forth, playing mediator, careful boss, and cheering squad to prevent them from murdering each other before closing the case. Closest they reach is some hardcore biting. Very hardcore. Do be on the lookout for scene stealing puppet performances from the likes of Drew Massey, and even Kevin Clash in a reasonable career comeback.

Director Henson, whose family lineage couldn’t be stronger in the realm of strictly family fare, proves his R-rated game is determinably raised very high. Given the company bearing his father’s namesake had been gestating this project for over ten years, multiple stars coming and going in the process, he approaches this project the same he would an all-Muppet, or kid-friendly affair, with the same eye for character construction. Therefore, it is beyond frustrating, even appalling to know he had to settle for a lackluster script that could only carry him and his cast so far for so little. A brisk 90 minutes, 12 of them amounting to the longest credit sequence of the year, and so much of that time spent on sensationalist thrills. Anyone going in expecting a lighthearted, almost musical romp with colorful characters, but can hold on to a serious police tone, will be seriously disappointed. Happytime is better suited to the strengths of the latter, dotted with so much material best suited for Crank Yankers skits. In other words, it plays a little too lowbrow, perhaps to the bare minimum of what it could’ve accomplished with a more enriching story. Not that one could aim too high with McCarthy comically committing to a laughable habit of candy crystal equal to cocaine. Watch if you must, but unlike Henson, whom I know is capable of far more, do not settle, if one wants to see more puppet-friendly films in the future. (D+)

The Happytime Murders opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material; 90 minutes.