The Happytime Murders—This cop-noir parody is set in an alternative-reality version of Los Angeles in which humans and Muppet-like puppets coexist, albeit not happily. The puppets are a detested underclass, treated with open contempt and frequent violence by the humans.
Our hero Phil (performed by Bill Barretta) is a hard-boiled puppet private detective with a tragic past—his tenure as the first puppet on the LAPD ended in a disaster which led to the belief that “puppets won’t shoot other puppets.” Phil and his estranged human ex-partner Connie (Melissa McCarthy), now a police detective, are thrown back together. They must investigate a string of murders of the cast of an old TV sitcom, The Happytime Gang, regarded as a breakthrough for puppet representation on television. Two of these cast members have history with Phil.
The resemblance to a Muppet movie isn’t accidental. The puppets are products of The Jim Henson Creature Shop, and are performed by veteran Muppeteers—Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, takes on a couple of roles including the hapless bunny “Mr. Bumblypants.” The director is Jim’s son Brian Henson, who previously directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and other such projects. One of the production company logos appearing at the beginning is for “Henson Alternative,” and this is about as “alterative” to earlier Henson work as you could get.
This movie works hard—self-consciously hard—to earn its R-rating. It isn’t just that the characters are seriously foul-mouthed, though they are. There’s also fairly graphic, protracted and messy puppet sex and fetishism, and head-exploding puppet violence. In case it isn’t already clear, this one isn’t for the kids.
It should also be noted that there’s nothing really new here. The fanciful alternate-L.A. setting echoes the human-cartoon world of 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and mixing puppets with luridness and graphic sex and violence recalls Peter Jackson’s early effort Meet the Feebles and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police.
But for a while, I thought The Happytime Murders was pretty funny. Most of the dialogue isn’t witty; it’s bluntly crude, and the humor arises, if it does, from the fact that it’s coming out of cute little puppets, or that it’s being directed at them. This, of course, has swiftly diminishing returns, so the filmmakers try to ratchet up the raunch, and eventually that hits a wall too. The homestretch of the film unfolds, weirdly, as an almost straightforward action movie in the ‘80s style; say, Stakeout or Tango and Cash.
What kept the movie going through all of this, for me, was McCarthy. Her trademark splenetic riffing is more than usually uninhibited in this context. Like many performers, she seems to get an extra charge from working with these puppets, and she wasn’t exactly a bashful wallflower to begin with. There are other good non-puppet actors here, including Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale and Maya Rudolph, especially good as Phil’s secretary with a heart of gold. But McCarthy is the movie’s engine.
The Happytime Murders strikes a lot of sour notes, and on balance it seems unlikely to please audiences or critics. But it made me laugh quite a lot, and it could quite possibly find a long-term cult following. It’s almost the definition of an interesting misfire.
2001: A Space Odyssey—Back in June, Harkins Theatres showed Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, in observance of the film’s 50th Anniversary. Now IMAX is doing the same, for one week only, at Harkins Arizona Mills, AMC Westgate, AMC Desert Ridge and AMC Surprise Pointe. If the movie blew your mind before, think what it could do in IMAX.
Opening on Valley IMAX screens this weekend.