Published Aug 23, 2018Have you ever wondered what the vaginas, pee or cum of puppets looks like? Probably not. But in The Happytime Murders, you'll find out.
In L.A.'s seedy underbelly, puppets and humans coexist, but they're not happy about it. Disbarred cop puppet turned private detective Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) teams up with his human former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to investigate a string of murders. The cast of a '90s sitcom, "The Happytime Gang," is being picked off, and in their efforts to solve the case, the detectives visit porn shops, strip clubs, drug-filled back rooms and an illegal gambling den.
Using the tropes of film noir detective films creates a recognizable framework in which to play, and the film's game is clear: cram as many vulgar puppet puns and as much graphically sexual content and creative ways to kill a puppet into one-and-a-half hours as possible. It's funnier in concept, though, than in execution. The film is full of crude acts, such as projectile ejaculating silly string for an extended period of time, too dirty or dark for a human character to get away with. But it's not particularly compelling with puppets, either; almost entirely dependent on shock value, the jokes tire out pretty quickly after the first 15 minutes or so.
Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph, who plays Phillip's assistant Bubbles, hold their own, acting off puppet co-stars as naturally as they would humans. But while they inject some energy and real-world perspective into the film, most of their lines fall flat, and where more intelligent comedy writing might have let the film grasp at legitimacy, there are repeated jokes of "asshole says what," calling McCarthy's character a man and snorting glittery puppet drugs that miss the mark. Despite being a thoroughly "adult" film, it's hard to believe it was written by anyone but a group of 12-year-old boys.
The film actually spurred a lawsuit from the Sesame Workshop for allegedly harming the Sesame Street brand, largely due to the tagline "No Sesame. All Street." The case was dismissed on the grounds that the film adequately distinguished itself, but Happytime Murders is coming straight out of the Jim Henson Company, whose creator Jim Henson never actually intended for puppets to be a kids-only storytelling tool —early in his career, his puppets had an ongoing segment "The Land of Gortch" in the first season of Saturday Night Live.
Yet, The Happytime Murders hardly feels like a fitting extension of Henson's muppet legacy. Not because it's thoroughly vulgar and dirty, but because that's all it is. (VVS)