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Friday, August 24, 2018

The Happytime Murders

A lot of bad movies get pushed out of Hollywood every year, but it's rare to get an inexplicably bad one like The Happytime Murders.  This is the kind of movie that makes you ask, "What were they thinking?", over and over.  It exists solely to shock and offend, but it can't even do that.  This is also the kind of movie that can sink careers.  Not that I wish for that to happen.  The movie was directed by Brian Henson (son of Jim), and features human actors like Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph.  They all put on game faces, but you can tell they're struggling to rise above this.

This is a one-joke movie, and that joke is "puppets are dirty".  We see characters that resemble the sort of Muppets we see on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show chain smoking, snorting lines of sugar like cocaine, hanging out in porno stores, inhabiting strip clubs, acting like mobsters and prostitutes, and having rough sex with each other.  Put those images in your head, picture if you would like to watch that for 90 minutes, and you will know whether or not you are the audience for this film.  The idea of putting Muppet-like characters in adult situations has been done before, and successfully.  There is of course Peter Jackson's early film effort, Meet the Feebles, which got away with more than this movie can ever dream of.  Even Broadway has gotten into the raunchy puppet act with the Tony-winning musical, Avenue Q.  I knew what I was walking into, so please don't read this as I was offended by the film's content.  If anything, I was ready to be offended, and walked out bored and disappointed.

There is at least a sort of intriguing idea behind The Happytime Murders, where puppets and humans live side by side in real world L.A., and where puppets are basically treated as second class citizens.  I can see a more successful screenplay really building on this idea, and maybe making some comments on our society.  This movie makes a few fleeting attempts , but it quickly gives up, and falls back on unfunny shock imagery such as a puppet cow being "pleasured" by an octopus squeezing all of its udders at once, or a dalmatian having rough bondage sex with a fireman.  The screenplay by Todd Berger does some customary world building in the first 10 minutes or so, then forgets all about it, and just plops its puppet characters into a forgettable murder mystery story about an assailant who is knocking off the cast of a popular 90s sitcom one-by-one.  The show, titled The Happytime Gang, was once noteworthy for being the first TV show to cast puppet actors.  Now all the puppets are junkies and sex addicts, and are turning up dead in brutal gangland-style murders.

Our hero is Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta), a puppet private eye who talks kind of like Robert De Niro, and has a past.  He once was the first puppet to join the L.A. police force, but after an incident involving a shoot out went wrong, he was kicked off the force and now he spends his days investigating low level crimes for hire.  A femme fatale named Sandra (voice by Dorien Davies) walks into his office with a job that leads him into investigating the series of puppet murders, which include Phil's brother, who acted on the show back in the day.  Phil is put on the case, but he is forced to team up with his former human partner from his days as a cop, Detective Connie Edwards, who is played by Melissa McCarthy.  She basically is giving the same foul-mouthed cop performance she did in The Heat with Sandra Bullock a few years ago, and all it does is make us wish we were watching that movie instead.

Other human characters are involved as well, such as Elizabeth Banks as Jenny, who used to star on The Happytime Gang, but now works as a stripper, because the movie can't think of anything else shocking for her to do.  Maya Rudolph turns up as Bubbles, who is Phil's secretary and closest friend.  And then there is Joel McHale, easily giving the worst performance as FBI agent Campbell.  Of course, it's not his fault the script gives him such terrible dialogue and scenes to do.  At one point, he's forced to do a tired parody of the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct, and you can almost see on his face that he knows it's lame.  None of these stars are given much of anything to do, because this is not really their movie.  We're supposed to be amused by the raunchy puppets.  But you can't get laughs just out of showing puppets having rough sex, and then shooting off silly string when they climax.  You have to build to something, or give the puppets something clever to think or say, and this movie never does.

The Happytime Murders never builds to anything worthwhile, and is simply lazy in its desire to shock audiences.  This could have been something bold and daring, but it only ends up being crass and unmemorable.  I'm all for the Henson Company branching out into more adult projects.  In fact, I encourage it.  But is it too much to ask that we get a real script and some genuine laughs to go with it?  This is director Brian Henson's first film since 1996's Muppet Treasure Island.  If this is any indication, he didn't wait long enough to make his comeback. 

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