Like a resurrected ’90s Fox series living and breathing just enough to stumble into theaters, The Happytime Murders is dated, painfully edgy, and just long enough to fill four episodes before being duly, unceremoniously canceled. Its rote direction, willfully crass writing, and score seemingly filled with license-free temp tracks also imply as much. Yet here it is, in theaters, as broadcast by a trailer featuring a lengthy finale involving silly string ejaculate streaming from a puppet’s penis. That’s a sequence that already feels long in the wretched 20 seconds it plays in the film’s red-band trailer, yet somehow it’s strained far longer in the actual film. From the scene’s inception, to its drawn out climax, to Maya Rudolph’s secretary casually pulling out the cleaning spray as if this happens all the time (which it doesn’t!), it’s but a recurring symptom of the prolonged disease that is this Jim Henson-borne sickness of a film.
Despite being scarcely credited, puppeteer Bill Barretta stars as Phil Philips, the first and possibly last puppet cop on Los Angeles’s police force. He’s since become a private investigator, which brings him his latest client, Sandra, a puppet who looks like Ruth Wilson as designed by the freak who made the sexualized female gremlin of Gremlins 2. Between that and a spate of murders connected to his brother’s old, titular TV show, he gets reconnected with old partner Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), unconvincingly framed, and is forced to (sort of?) solve said spate of homicides.
The result is also a criminal investigation that involves the FBI, and Joel McHale’s Agent Campbell, for reasons in no way explained. It’s not because there’s a massive conspiracy, and it’s certainly not because of the status of the film’s puppet victims: In Happytime‘s half-assed racism parable, puppets are second-class citizens. Ostensibly because of this (but more for the lazy gags), their population is largely addicted to smut and drugs. Their drug of choice? Sugar! They also piss glitter for some reason. The implication would seem to be that they’re such saccharine-sweet characters, even while the exact opposite is all that’s ever depicted, but that’s about as far as the movie ever delves into its self-made world. While it mercifully avoids the obvious “hand up your ass” line anyone would assume was coming, it consequently never even addresses why these characters are “puppets” instead of just sentient plushies.
While this trash is directed by Brian Henson and executive produced by one of a handful of his fellow offspring of Jim Henson, it’s somehow un-ironically focused on killing off rivals to enhance one’s own royalty checks. The titular premise sees members of a thinly-realized children’s show getting offed for what at first seems to be money but is pretty obviously revealed to be a bit more. As a modest B-plot, there’s Edwards dealing with a drug-like sugar addiction thanks to a wound in the line of duty giving her a puppet liver replacement. That puppets are explicitly filled with just polyester stuffing, and that livers don’t work that way, are of course never explained—just some more ways the film is itself a soulless pile of man-made fluff.
The Happytime Murders‘ comedy flails as much as its puppets boneless arms. The gags seem invented mid-show by a desperate college improv troupe, diving straight for the cheap, lewd, violent floor and falling face-down onto it. The number of dick not-quite-jokes nearly matches the times tedious scenes devolve into a felted haze. Nearly every would-be laugh is almost pitiably embarrassing to hear a talented comic actor forced to say, yet Henson seems to take a sadistic pleasure in seeing it happen, dwelling on every one with smug satisfaction before hammering it into the ground.
One example: Sandra, in the interrogation room (we’ll generously ignore that she was just being interviewed and had no reason to be there), does a haggard parody of Sharon Stone’s infamous Basic Instinct vagina peek. Henson of course cuts in to a close-up of her purple-pubed vagina. THEN Agent Campbell says something about how French she is to be so unshaven. THEN Edwards notes that the redheaded puppet’s “carpet doesn’t match the drapes.” THEN, with but a 30-second scene of an intermission, Edwards angrily storms out and confronts her coworkers, telling a redheaded woman that her pubes poking out of her shorts revealed that she, too, must dye her hair. So there’s that one again! And, for a cherry on top of this pube-obsessed sundae, Edwards THEN tells Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s real-life husband (in his only scene), that she would have fucked him. He, like the audience, responds with a sentiment that’s essentially, “Well, fuck me.”
It’s worth noting that The Happytime Murders, at least in its earliest form, was a supposedly hot screenplay. A decade ago, it made Hollywood’s “Blacklist” of insiders’ most-liked, yet-unproduced scripts. It was then regarded as a sort of adult neo-noir with puppets—Avenue Q meets L.A. Confidential, one trade wrote—but that gritty idea now only almost comes across in the film’s first five or so minutes. Since then, it’s seemingly changed quite a bit—and not just in becoming a loosely-stitched puppet barking discarded Seth MacFarlane gags. It shifted from Lionsgate to STX Entertainment, with Cameron Diaz, Katherine Heigl, and Jamie Foxx all once in talks to star; that those names are as equally eclectic and arbitrary as an SNL host list says a lot about how Happytime regards the partner role, both defined by and utterly inconsequential as to who fills it. McCarthy is very herself, just as the others would have been, as nobody can do anything with this execrable material.
In one of many strained routines, Rudolph is forced to describe “Pilafing,” a prison act she lengthily describes as a puppet being gutted of its stuffing, filled with rice pilaf, and repeatedly fucked. It’s a too woefully apt metaphor for this pap-filled garbage crammed with so many penis jokes. Contrasted against the similarly-themed likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Meet the Feebles, L.A. Confidential, and the recent BlacKkKlansmen, The Happytime Murders is an unquestionable inferior. But it’s important to view it in context. As a troubled ten-year-old that’s been passed between homes, its inept sense of humor makes perfect sense.
The Happytime Murders
Director: Brian Henson
Studio: STX Entertainment
Runtime: 91 minutes
Cast: Bill Barretta, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks, Dorien Davies