I know it’ll probably come as a surprise to you that the movie with the Muppet detective jizzing all over his office is bad, but what’s surprising about Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders is the true depth of its horridness.
It is hard to fathom how one film can be this unfunny, especially with the talent they’ve assembled for this project: I don’t just mean the cast, which features top-tier talent like Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, and Elizabeth Banks, but also the combined efforts of screenwriter Todd Berger (whose 2012 comedy It’s a Disaster I found pretty funny) and Henson Alternative, the puppeteers behind so many great pieces of pop entertainment which delighted both children and adults alike. This is an astonishing failure of imagination on so many levels that it’s almost like a Greek tragedy, in which all of the great men and women involved in this are brought low by a tragic flaw — namely, that they thought any of this was funny and/or worth putting on the big screen.
In the world of The Happytime Murders, sentient puppets co-exist with humans and, despite being literally the cutest goddamn things on the planet, every flesh-and-blood person hates the fuzzy little guys, and they’re discriminated against from every quarter. Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a private investigator who was once the LAPD’s first puppet cop, is hired by a puppet named Sandra (Dorien Davies) to look into a blackmail threat she’s received from an unknown crook. While tracking down a lead at a puppet sex shop, Phil witnesses a quadruple murder, whose victims include a cast member from a popular ’80s sitcom, The Happytime Gang, of which Phil’s brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) was once an actor on. Larry’s the next target, and he’s killed when an unknown perp releases a pack of dogs into his home to tear him to shreds. At that point, Phil’s hired by his former police lieutenant (Leslie David Baker) as a consultant and paired with his former partner Connie (McCarthy) to solve and hopefully prevent the murders of the rest of the cast. It’ll take them to some dark places and force them to do some dark things, but you know the drill.
Hell, you’ve definitely seen this type of cross-species buddy cop comedy before, but you’ve probably seen it done better than it is here — Roger Rabbit being probably the best example, alongside something like maybe Alien Nation or even David Ayer’s garbage Bright — and The Happytime Murders makes a pretty good argument for its immediate retirement. Nothing about McCarthy’s pairing with Barretta works: They’re both the same type of brash and tough-talking character, and it’s kind of like watching a ventriloquist yell at himself, only at some point he drops the accent he’s using for his puppet and just starts screaming in the same voice. It’s not like McCarthy is a stranger to the buddy cop genre — she’s absolutely fucking hilarious in Paul Feig’s The Heat — but usually she’s given a partner with a different skill set from her own to play off of (much like Sandra Bullock’s straight-laced FBI agent in was in that film). Their dialogue here feels like it was written by 12 year-old who had just discovered how to swear, and the clumsy usages of every “fuck” and “shit,” crammed in to places where they grammatically don’t belong, only helps to heighten that juvenile vibe.
The world around them is equally shoddy, assembled by patchwork to hide the puppeteers animating the cloth-covered denizens of the world, and the CGI used to create the scenes where you see the puppets in profile, legs and all, is unnervingly bad. It’s astonishing how much of this managed to pass muster in this day-and-age, especially in a film that cost some $40 million, but it’s also just sort of the fault inherent in making this particular world come to life. Worst of all, the only aspects of the puppet world that we see are the scuzziest and “grossest” sections, sex shops and gang hideouts, and it doesn’t help the film’s central metaphor, that the suffering of puppets here is analogous to the suffering of real-world minorities.
Henson thinks he’ll be able to milk laughs from the novelty of juxtaposing the stuff of children’s entertainment with the “realities” of the adult world, but they just don’t fucking work, and they’re often just kind of gross. Yes, you’ll see an puppet octopus milk a puppet cow while making a porno video. Yes, you’ll watch a dalmatian domme a human firefighter. Yes, you’ll see a puppet’s labia, flashed to Joel McHale in a Basic Instinct riff that is of importance to the main plot. All of these moments might sound fun in a schlocky shock-oriented way, but they’re all uncomfortably ugly and weirdly mean-spirited. Perhaps if the film had a specific satirical angle or a general target of its parody, it might have been better, but Henson and Berger really have no idea what the hell they’re doing.
I’d love to be able to tell you about a couple of funny jokes contained within the movie, or that Maya Rudolph’s role in the film, as Phillips’ gold-hearted secretary Bubbles, is worth struggling through everything else present, but I can’t. I didn’t laugh once (hell, Super Troopers 2 is fucking Airplane! compared to this), except when two dudes walked out of the screening after almost 45 minutes of this particular torture. Sadly, Rudolph’s not great here as well, doing sub-SNL work that might have been passable in a forgettable five-minute sketch but it grates like a motherfucker when this character is stretched out fill the 91 minute runtime. Her efforts are totally wasted, along with each and every member of the ensemble. You especially have to feel terrible for the puppeteers, who seemed to have a great time making the film, based on a making-of reel shown during the credits (interspersed with an “I Want Candy” music video) that shows them laughing and having a ball with all of this. There’s literally nothing of redeeming value in The Happytime Murders, and the only way to win, like in WarGames is simply not to buy a ticket and engage with it.