What if you took Meet the Feebles, sanitized it, and removed all the jokes? That’s the overall tenor of The Happytime Murders, the latest attempt to ride the long-departed Avenue Q train of subversive dark comedies starring puppets. Sure, the initial novelty of having cute, fuzzy Muppets inhabit a dark world of sex, drugs, and crime is intermittently diverting, but all its jokes about puppet ejaculate bursting forth like Silly String and ‘pilafing’ (don’t ask) hardly make up for the fact that it’s a bad Funny or Die sketch stretched out to feature length.
Directed by Brian Henson (son of Jim, for whom this was a longtime passion project), The Happytime Murders is set in a seedy, Chinatown-esque world in which puppets exist as a marginalized lower class to humans. Phil Phillips (voiced and puppeteered by Bill Barretta) is a former cop, disgraced after a botched hostage situation and alienated from his onetime human partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Now a private detective, he’s brought back into the fold after a sultry felt fatale (brought to life by Dorien Davies) asks him to investigate a mysterious blackmail note. Meanwhile, puppet actors from the hit syndicated sitcom The Happytime Gang are being gruesomely slain, one by one. In classic L.A. noir fashion, the two separate cases turn out to secretly be the same case, and Phillips and Edwards have to put aside their differences and work together.
There are a lot of films fighting for attention over the course of The Happytime Murders’ thankfully short runtime – an edgy puppet comedy, a noir parody, a Melissa McCarthy vehicle, a play on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and a few more still. Henson and screenwriter Todd Berger (It’s a Disaster) can’t decide which of these films to focus on, leaving them to throw everything at the screen at once. Happytime’s greatest risk is also its greatest flaw: turning the straight-laced noir detective Phillips into the straight man in a buddy-comedy scenario with McCarthy. McCarthy gets to show off her considerable comedic chops (especially admirable, considering the obnoxious material she’s given to work with), but at the expense of what’s supposed to be the film’s protagonist.
At a certain point in poorly executed high-concept comedies, one hits “the wall” – that point where the film’s primary joke has run its course, but the movie bravely soldiers on, unaware that it’s lost the attention of everyone in attendance. For The Happytime Murders, that point is approximately twenty minutes in. It becomes clear all too quickly that “puppets say swears” is all the film has to offer, so it’s a slog to sit through the remaining seventy minutes of that same joke, repeated ad nauseam.
On occasion, the puppet parallels elicit the rare chuckle: sugar is a cocaine-like drug, puppets explode into fluff when they get a faceful of lead, and a TV-star puppet brags that he had his felt bleached to look younger. These are minor distractions, though, cheap gags arrived at cheaply, and they’re as likely to induce as many eye-rolls as much as bemused chuckles. The human supporting cast fares little better, including Maya Rudolph as Phillips’ ditzy, anachronistic secretary, and Joel McHale as an asshole FBI agent; they each get one snort-worthy gag, and then disappear.
Given Happytime’s transparent commitment to one or two unfunny bits, it’s especially frustrating when the film reaches pitifully for pathos. The relationship between Phillips and Edwards is a contentious one, two broken people – one flesh, one felt – trying to fix their lives with each other’s help. The problem is that, for a film so eager to push buttons it doesn’t know have already been pushed, The Happytime Murders is tediously conventional when it comes to an actual story. Cut the strings of the puppet façade, and all that’s left is an awkward montage of a boilerplate detective story and a buddy cop movie. A joke delivery machine is only good if the jokes are actually funny.
Even in her worst films, McCarthy is wonderful when used well, and it’s a miracle she can save any of Happytime’s horridly unfunny scenes. Whether she’s snorting glitter through a Twizzler to prove she’s not a cop, or shaking down a misogynistic puppet for clues, she throws in the same energy that rightfully earned her an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids. But when you’re faced with the challenge of interacting with a largely puppeted cast (and a poorly-rendered one at that), there’s only so much hyperactive energy you can hurl at the screen. It doesn’t help that the movie looks so cheap – it’s lit with the bright, even blandness of your average Reno 911! episode. For her valiant efforts at keeping Happytime afloat, McCarthy should be praised. Alas, it simply isn’t enough.
At the end of the day, the problem isn’t that the puppets fuck, but that the puppets don’t make us laugh while they fuck. This is a film that confuses “Maya Rudolph keeps a banana in her purse” and “Puppet Chicks with Puppet Dicks” with actual jokes. Don’t give it too much credit.
If this film was released fifteen years ago it might – might – have felt edgy, or new, or transgressive. But in an age where the director of Meet the Feebles is now one of the biggest directors around, and the edgy notion of “puppets who fuck” has already been explored in Team America and Avenue Q and even the Puppet Master series, The Happytime Murders comes too little and far, far too late.