If you’re in the mood for a great cinematic blend of edgy comedy and detective thriller, combining the seamy underbelly of the big city with seemingly childish characters who have surprisingly adult predilections, good news: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is streaming on Hulu. It’s a classic!
If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for a movie that apes the style of the 1988 masterpiece, as well as a handful of other not-terribly-recent films, then the dull and laugh-free The Happytime Murders is your only option. But there’s not much of a good reason to sit through the film outside of sheer, baffled curiosity.
The premise, at least, might have worked had the filmmakers exhibited a sense of genuine curiosity of their own. Grim and hard-bitten LAPD detective-turned-private eye Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) gets embroiled in a case full of lust, greed and violence after he inadvertently becomes a witness to a multiple homicide at an adult video store. See, Phil happened to be working another case when he stumbled upon the sight of an octopus milking a cow’s eight udders to sexual climax, and that was before the octopus and cow got shot up by a mystery killer. Because, you see, Phil and many of the characters in this film are puppets (the word “Muppet” is not uttered here, even though the film is produced by a subsidiary of the Jim Henson Company).
Phil eventually has to work the case with his old LAPD partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) in spite of their latent distrust for each other. They eventually reconnect even as they try to figure out who is killing off the cast members of a beloved old TV show about puppets, including one of the customers at the adult video store. (That the murdered customer, seen being hopelessly addicted to porn, is played by Kevin Clash is…quite a choice!)
The logic of The Happytime Murders is enough to make your head spin, if it didn’t seem obvious that the creators of the film don’t really care about internal logic even amidst a fantastical premise. (To wit: the image of the octopus milking the cow’s udders to orgasm is something else, especially because the udders appear to be leaking actual milk. But when the cow’s shot to pieces, it explodes in fluff, sans blood. Where’d the milk come from? Where’d…maybe it’s better not to know.) But thinking about the logic is more satisfying than thinking about the humor evinced by director Brian Henson (yes, Jim’s son) and writer Todd Berger. The visual edginess of The Happytime Murders – as in a visual gag where Phil ejaculates silly string for what feels like eight hours – feels like a late-to-the-game attempt to one-up Team America: World Police. The verbal humor isn’t much stronger, based on lines like “Looks like this mystery was brought to you by the letter P.” (Because, you see, there’s this show called Sesame Street. And…well, you know.)
Despite the amount of hard work that went into making The Happytime Murders look believable, inasmuch as watching a puppet beat up humans in the name of police work can be believable, the most compelling and remotely interesting performance comes from McCarthy. She’s not asked to play too far outside the box, at least relative to her past work in films like The Heat, but while the film bogs her and the other characters down with unnecessary, every-other-word-style profanity, she at least knows her way around making such R-rated language sound almost musical in a staccato way. It says something that the film’s best scene – without actually being very good – features McCarthy, Maya Rudolph (as Phil’s secretary) and no puppets. It’s just enjoyable to watch them onscreen again, reuniting in a warped way after Bridesmaids. (That said: why is Maya Rudolph not getting the big star roles like McCarthy? She’s delightful here, as she is in most movies. She even livened up McCarthy’s other summer vehicle this year, Life of the Party, if only for a few minutes.)
The puppet characters themselves are, like the film itself, flaccid and lifeless. It’s not that Barretta and the other puppeteers aren’t talented at what’s clearly a very challenging job. (The exceedingly long end credits display some bloopers as well as brief glimpses at how some of the effects in the film were pulled off.) It’s that Phil and the other puppet characters just aren’t interesting. And, frankly, very few of the human characters get much to do either. When you make a film with Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, and Elizabeth Banks, and there’s maybe one mild chuckle spread out amongst the four of them, something is wrong. Such is the case with The Happytime Murders. About 20 years ago, this film might have seemed darker, more biting, and slightly wittier. Today, it’s just stale.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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