In a world where puppets are alive but treated as second-class citizens, a private investigator puppet named Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta) is hired by bombshell and sex addict Sandra (performed by Dorian Davies) to find the person blackmailing her. Phil recognizes something in the blackmail note made from cut-out letters and goes to a local puppet porn store. While in the back looking through their records, a gunman wearing a hooded trench coat walks in and kills everyone in the store, including Mr. Bumblypants (performed by Kevin Clash), a character on a 1990’s TV show called The Happytime Gang. The police come to investigate the murders including Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). She and Phil were partners when he was the first and only puppet ever to be allowed on the police force. An incident nearly killed Connie and ended both their friendship and Phil’s career on the force. They don’t like each other but police Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker) orders the former partners to work together on solving the crime. As more puppet bodies pile up, including Phil’s brother Larry (performed by Victor Yerrid), there is an obvious connection to The Happytime Gang and to Phil as he always seems to be in the vicinity of the murders. FBI agent Campbell (Joel McHale) arrests Phil but Connie knows he’s not guilty as their time working together has rekindled their friendship. Since The Happytime Gang is coming back on the air via reruns on a cable network, the entire cast is set to profit. Which ever cast member is left standing at the end is probably the killer or is it?!
“The Happytime Murders” is an R-rated comedy from the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, Brian Henson, under a banner called Henson Alternative that focuses on adult content. The movie is filled with bad language (coming from both puppets and humans), violence (directed at both puppets and humans) and sex (mostly only between puppets but not always). The production was sued by the makers of children’s show “Sesame Street” over the tagline “No Sesame, All Street.” The lawsuit was tossed out and the film was released without further controversy. Considering the opening weekend box office, it could have used a great deal more bad press as “The Happytime Murders” has nothing to be happy about as far as its performance. It has a very low Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores and opening day audiences gave the film a C- on an A to F scale. Perhaps I’m weird and dumb, but I liked “The Happytime Murders.”
What gets the most attention in the film is the mixing of humans and puppets in an otherwise normal world. We aren’t told why or how the puppets are alive and that doesn’t really matter. They are treated as less than human by humans (the puppets call us meat bags) and they are marginalized in society. We see the puppets have their weaknesses just like we do: The have odd taste in pornography, they indulge in smoking and alcohol, and many of them are addicted to drugs, specifically sugar. They often live in the seedier parts of town and do whatever they must to satisfy their cravings for powder or crystal sugar. Some drink maple syrup for their fix.
That description of the more down-and-out members of puppet society required a great deal more world-building than most movies invest in their human characters and settings. “The Happytime Murders” could be looked at as a metaphor for human relations with the marginalized members of our society and how they are treated as less than. With a slightly better execution, I believe “The Happytime Murders” could have been the kind of subversive comic statement that could have opened a few eyes of people that just came in for a few laughs. Sadly, the movie’s tone does sudden shifts from comedic to tragic to mundane and never allows any one moment to breathe for more than a few seconds.
The story is also a bit rote with a twist that is telegraphed from practically the opening scene. I enjoyed the mystery for a while, but it soon grew tiresome as puppet after puppet is dispatched in progressively more graphic ways. There are interesting characters sprinkled throughout, like Phil’s secretary Bubbles played by Maya Rudolph and a couple of puppets seen for only a moment that provides an argument against cousins marrying, but these are too few and far between. We focus mostly on Connie and Phil as they are forced to work together and rediscover their mutual admiration for one another.
Melissa McCarthy isn’t taxed as an actress in the role of Connie Edwards. She is either a foul-mouthed hard ass or a foul-mouthed good friend. Either way, we’ve seen this McCarthy before and will likely see it again. I suppose it depends on the surrounding players and the quality of the material as to whether this standard McCarthy performance is considered good or bad. For me it was very middle of the road.
The film overall works for me because of the warped world we’re in and the humor. We aren’t ever allowed to forget there are puppets living and walking among us. That gets repeatedly banged into our heads. It isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds and plays a big role in why McCarthy’s Connie is the perfect person to investigate this case. The humor is anchored in the ridiculousness of the premise and hammered home by a scene that plays a big part in the trailer: The puppet sex scene. Phil and his client engage in a loud and violent sex act in his office while the police and FBI wait in the reception area. While the scene is over-the-top in the trailer, it gets expanded and goes even bigger in the film with a particularly memorable Silly String finish. It’s the kind of bizarre and crude scene that should be the thing fans talk about in 30 years when this movie will likely be considered a comedy classic. That is the most out-there scene in the film, but there are plenty of others that are also very funny and almost as crude (an octopus and a cow shooting a homemade porno comes to mind). It isn’t consistently funny, but “The Happytime Murders” delivers enough laughs to make it worth the price of admission for at least a matinee.
“The Happytime Murders” is rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material. The previously described sex scenes along with a BDSM film playing on the screen of a porno theater are the most graphic sexual situations. The drugs shown being used are actually candy, powdered sugar and colored crystal sugar. There are no real-world drugs shown. Foul language is common throughout.
It isn’t art, but “The Happytime Murders” isn’t the catastrophe most of the critics are making it out to be. Admittedly, I didn’t enter the theater with very high expectations as I was aware of the low scores on the various review aggregators; however, what I saw was a subversive comedy taking pot shots at society and the treatment of those considered to be “lesser” and how that notion was garbage. Could it have been done differently or more effectively? Probably, but this film isn’t the complete disaster many make it out to be. I believe it’s worth giving a chance and make up your own mind. I did.
“The Happytime Murders” gets four stars out of five.
Three new films open this week in what is considered the final week of the summer movie season. I’ll see at least one of the following:
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