A quick haemorrhage of cinematic dignity. Dear lord.
Believe it or not, The Happytime Murders could have been good, great even. It’s a devilish premise – taking fuzzy figures more popular for their presence in our childhoods and throw them into a grim, explicit noir, jammed full of violence, swearing and hard, stringy sex. It’s even directed by the man behind cherished classics such as The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, Brian Henson. Clearly, this is the product of a long-held fantasy to branch the Muppets out to an adult only audience. However, these aren’t strictly ‘Muppets’ – there’s no Kermit or Miss Piggy. So really we shouldn’t call them Muppets at all, but let’s face it, that’s exactly what they are, we just don’t know them. Thank god we didn’t know them – in fact, I wish I never met them.
We’re in a twisted vision of L.A. – puppets walk the streets alongside humans, have relationships with them, fight with them, even work with them. They snort crushed sugar instead of cocaine and pounce on each other’s velvet. When the cast of an 80s puppet show (totally not the Muppets), called The Happytime Gang, are being picked off one by one, gunned down by a nefarious killer, a disgraced police officer turned private detective, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) teams up with his old partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to track them down.
Henson and writer Todd Berger’s inspirations are blatant from the opening scenes. Imagine a mix of Chinatown, The Nice Guys and A Walk Among The Tombstones, but less refined and with Mup- sorry, puppets. Phillips was thrown out of the police after being accused of purposely not shooting a puppet criminal, bringing about the ‘Phillips Act’ which prohibited any sort of career in the force. Now, he just solves petty love troubles and drowns his sorrows alone in his office while his assistant (Maya Rudolph) swoons over him. The plot moves thick and fast, the fuse being sparked with a letter threatening to expose a fuzzy nympho online. Everywhere Phillips goes, murder follows him, gruesome amounts of fluff everywhere.
The initial trailer for this filth provided a few giggles, mainly out of the novelty of seeing these cuddly toys doing such unspeakable things. But that’s the way it should have stayed; a novelty trailer. A nice idea kept perfectly within its limitations; but no, the feature film version of that fantasy is a disaster. Barretta’s smoky, course voiceover à la Max Payne is grating, never really serving to complement any of the wild events and weirdly being fazed out completely in the third act. This would lead you to think that one of the film’s issues is inconsistency, but this is not true. For a film to be inconsistent, it would have to have a few highs amidst the lows – this is just one straight up dirty skidmark.
It’s packed full of copycat gags, emulating jokes and bits that have been far better conceived in other films. For example, there’s a Basic Instinct homage here so much weaker than Deadpool 2‘s. The notorious centrepiece spunkathon showcased in the red band trailer is a less comically satisfying twist on Team America‘s infamous sex scene. For a film that appears to be pushing so many boundaries, there’s such a strong stench of unoriginality and needless crudeness.
How did this film attain such a strong ensemble? Leslie Baker (Stanley from The Office) plays the Lieutenant, Elizabeth Banks has a really strange turn (also her narrative is so unbalanced and soon disregarded), and Joel McHale makes a late appearance as the sort of stereotypical asshole boss that all these crime action films seem to have. He embraces the pantomimic sensibilities this film could be doing with a bit more but is burdened with some trite, under-developed dialogue.
McCarthy is a game performer here, taking immense joy in strolling around, punching puppets in the face, calling them all sorts of insults and delivering some of the abysmal script’s more memorable, dare I say it, even comedically well-timed moments (“Fuck Me!”, “Haha, maybe!”). But even she can’t elevate this mess to anything more than what it is – a desperate, distasteful, mean-spirited, derivative, dull mess, helmed by filmmakers who honestly (and naively) thought making a Muppet swear constantly equals greatness. What they haven’t understood is that with shock value there must be substance and context to give it real meaning – Team America was a biting satire with hilariously ridiculous writing, South Park takes sizeable jabs at all sorts of problems in our culture, but has a consistent wit. The puppeteering is great to be fair (those responsible steal the film in a chuckle-worthy credits blooper real); if only they were doing something worthwhile.