2 out of 10
Melissa McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards
Directed by Brian Henson
The Happytime Murders Review:
It’s not the worst idea in history – in fact it’s a good enough idea that at least two other filmmakers have already had it – but The Happytime Murders has no idea what to do with its premise. It’s too satisfied with sitting back and letting its puppets curse and have sex and do drugs and assume that’s entertainment enough. But it is not.
More than 10 years in the making, Happytime Murders brings the Henson’s fabled Muppets out of television and into the real world, a real world full of corruption and temptation they are more than willing to wallow in. It’s the perfect place for a Muppet PI like Phil Philips, a former police officer who patrols the dark side of the puppet world, trying to eke out a living and hopefully keep his fellow puppets from being exploited by unfeeling humans. It’s also the perfect place for a Muppet PI like Phil Philips to find himself on the wrong side of the law when after cast members of the Happytime Gang suddenly start turning up dead.
The problem with Happytime isn’t that it chooses to put its Muppets into aggressively adult situations, trying to squeeze comedy out of children’s characters (or at least reasonable facsimile’s thereof) cursing and dying and engaging in all manner of illicit activity. The problem is that’s the only thing it can do. Director Brian Henson and his long-time Muppet coterie seem so lost in the idea of their puppets engaging in bad behavior they can’t seem to do more than watch what they’ve accomplished with a kind of ‘I can’t believe we’re being allowed to do this’ awe which does not transfer to the audience or make up for the fact that there are no jokes. It’s briefly funny in its audaciousness, but only briefly. Once that wears off the fact that all of the puppet characters are either drug addicts or prostitutes stops being transgressive and becomes regressive. All of the focus is on the fact of what the puppets are doing and rarely on the why. The Henson technicians have built a Phil Philips puppet which can actually smoke a cigarette so it does in extended long close-ups for no reason whatsoever except to show off that he can do it. That’s not an exception, that’s the rule.
Just to get an idea of how vacuous it all is, perform a quick thought experiment. Imagine a good R-rated action comedy – for instance Shane Black’s The Nice Guys – and replace half of the characters with puppets. It still has the balance between tender character moment and humanism and out of control hedonism, but now with the added insanity of puppets (sometimes) doing drugs and getting their heads blown off. It would achieve the kind of thing Happytime seems to want to achieve without continually shooting itself in the foot.
Nothing makes this more clear than watching how hard Happytime’s human cast has to work to try to make up for how unfunny the rest of the film is, and none more so than McCarthy. As the most front and center of the non-Muppet cast McCarthy gets the unenviable job of making all the insanity around her funny and is more wasted than she perhaps ever has been. She does her best trying to add her considerable riffing to any sequence but all this does is play up how dull the scenes she is not in are and how hit and miss even her best material is given what’s around her. It’s clear even the filmmakers were becoming aware of the issue as puppets increasingly get pushed to the background as Happytime goes on in order to make more room for McCarthy and Maya Rudolph as Phil’s loyal secretary with hidden skills.
It would be terrible if it weren’t so boring. Though there isn’t much in it which is funny that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from continually trying to make jokes (or at least their idea of jokes) which, combined with an over convoluted plot, pushes the characters to the edges leaving them uninterested and uninteresting. The result is the longest 90 minutes you are ever likely to sit through.