Melissa McCarthy does not look at all happy for most of the 91 minutes of The Happytime Murders, and with very good reason. This noir parody, directed by Brian Henson (son of Muppets creator Jim Henson), has an intriguing premise: the concept of puppets as mere dolls, created for the entertainment of humans, is yet another example of prejudice and discrimination. Turns out, they don’t really like to dance and sing all the time. Puppets are just like us, sort of, and in Henson’s film, they have the same desires, dreams, ambitions and abilities. Predictably, humans are not in a rush to accept puppets as equals. So, noir comedy, Muppets, intriguing premise, and on top of that, a really great cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker, and John McHale. It sets up expectations…and that’s the problem. The Happytime Murders is entertaining and funny in its crude, bawdy way, yet it is not the innovative, creative experience that one might expect. Will it make you laugh? I laughed, lots of people around me in the theatre laughed, and probably you will too.
Set in crime-ridden LA, Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) is a former cop turned PI, bitter and tough. He was the first puppet to be on the police force, until one fatal day… Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) was his former partner, and a serial killer on the loose brings them, reluctantly, together again. McCarthy is a wonderful actor who is often typecast in roles that don’t reflect the range and depth of her ability, and this is one of them. Yet despite the over-done crudeness, there are also times when her comic flair shines through.
There’s a fine line between parody and cliché, unfortunately, Todd Berger’s screenplay stumbles over it all too many times. For me, all that was redeemed by the character of Bubbles, Phil’s devoted not-so-ditzy and very, very blond secretary, portrayed by the versatile Maya Rudolph. The role is an archetype that can be played in different ways, Rudolph imbues Bubbles with warmth and creates a character who gradually reveals surprising hidden layers. She’s a treat to watch.
Muppets who have sex, watch porn and swear are not a new concept. It’s been done, with panache, in Avenue Q. Who Framed Roger Rabbit did ‘cartoons viewed as living creatures, second class citizens, with an underground culture of their own’ really, really well. Given that the basic concept is not new, Henson would have had to do something really creative and intelligent in order to wow audiences. That he has not done.
The alert viewer will note that there are various inconsistencies in the internal logic of the film. Are puppets alive in the same way that humans are, or not? Apparently, they can be shot dead, they eat the same food we do, drink alcohol, and smoke. On the other hand, in the first few minutes of the film, a puppet who has his eye snatched out, is able to pop it right back in. Yet the most problematic contradiction is the one between the film’s aim and its reality. I suspect that the filmmaker’s goad was to assert that puppeteers and puppet makers are serious artists, and that it is possible to make a compelling feature film that merges puppets with live actors. Yet the overuse of profanity, visual and verbal jokes that are perhaps funny to the junior high crowd (does anyone ever really say ‘looks like the carpet doesn’t match the drapes’ much less say it twice in one movie?) undercut any serious artistic intentions. Will it make you laugh? Probably.
Note: the film is rated for 16+
The Happytime Murders
USA, 2018, 90 min, English with Hebrew subtitles
Director: Brian Henson; Screenplay: Todd Berger; Editor: Brian Scott Olds; Cinematography: Mitchell Amundsen; Music: Christopher Lennertz; Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, John McHale, Leslie David Baker.