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If 2018 produces a worse comedy than The Happytime Murders, we're all doomed 

click to enlarge Muppets least wanted: Even Melissa McCarthy seems bored in the tedious R-rated puppet film The Happytime Murders.
  • Muppets least wanted: Even Melissa McCarthy seems bored in the tedious R-rated puppet film The Happytime Murders.

The Happytime Murders is the definitive answer to a not-very-important question: What would happen if you ripped off Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but replaced the toons with Muppets and then made it super raunchy and R-rated, and what if it also totally sucked?

This F-grade comedy has but one joke, which it then bludgeons to a pulp. I laughed zero times, and I might have preferred to have been bludgeoned. Here's its only gag: There are a bunch of felt puppets, and they all say dirty things while engaging in outrageously inappropriate behavior. They go to strip clubs and porn shops. They excrete violent volumes of bodily fluids. They snort lines of pure, uncut sugar through licorice straws. Sometimes they're comically dismembered or blown apart by shotgun blasts.

It strains so hard to be outrageous that it'd probably pull a muscle if it had any.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not offended by the content of The Happytime Murders. It's actually unbelievably tame for a movie wearing its bad taste as a badge of honor. No, what's offensive is that the makers of this film are selling its central gimmick — characters you normally associate with children's entertainment cursing and screwing — like it's a new one: How quickly they've forgotten Roger Rabbit, Fritz the Cat, Meet the Feebles, Team America: World Police, Ted and Avenue Q. It's borrowing from all those superior works, but without a comic POV or a biting satirical edge.

It goes like this. A disgraced former puppet cop-turned-P.I. named Phil Phillips (voiced by Muppets veteran Bill Barretta) is sniffing around a string of felt slayings. When his actor brother ends up dead, Phillips posits that someone is knocking off the stars of an old sitcom called The Happytime Gang. His one-time partner, a human played by Melissa McCarthy, is the only one who believes the theories about the serial killer, and they team up to crack the case.

It's basically a parody of a film noir written by somebody who's never actually seen a film noir. There's the dusty upstairs detective agency, the bubbly secretary (Maya Rudolph, wasted), the stripper with a secret (Elizabeth Banks, wasted), the scowling G-man (Joel McHale, also wasted), the nymphette who's being blackmailed (a puppet, but wasted nonetheless). Weirdly enough, the film takes its own plot seriously, and there are protracted sequences in which McCarthy and her puppet co-star genuinely share their feelings with one another. And let's not even mention its half-baked commentary on race relations and police brutality.

What's most dismaying is that this is a genuine Henson Company production, directed by Jim Henson's son Brian, who also helmed The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. Those films had a sense of adventure, visual panache and a lot of colorful supporting players. What happened in the meantime? The Happytime Murders is visually flat — odd, considering it's spoofing one of the most visually expressive movie genres — and lacking in energy, a waste of the complicated artistry that is puppetry.

Remember when Kermit the Frog rode a bicycle in The Muppet Movie and it was a magical moment of simple cinematic wonder? I shudder to think what horrific things the felt creatures in this movie would do with a bike. Here, we get a scene in which a puppet octopus sexually pleasures a puppet cow by yanking on its udders until it lactates milk in thick, gushing geysers. My, how the art of cinema has progressed since 1978.

I can see how this premise might have appealed to so many talented people, and some of the film's individual set pieces probably seemed funny on the page. But as it plays out, The Happytime Murders is terrible. Horrible. Half-assed, tone-deaf, ugly, unfunny, idiotic, joyless, witless and seemingly endless at barely 90 minutes. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined "Disaster of Puppets"

The Happytime Murders
Rated R · 91 minutes · 2018
Official Site: stxfilms.com/thehappytimemurders/#about
Director: Brian Henson
Producer: Brian Henson, Jeffrey Hayes, Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Felice Bee, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler, Lisa Henson, John Hyde, Dee Robertson and Donald Tang
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Cynthy Wu, Michael McDonald, Mitch Silpa, Hemky Madera, Benjamin Royer, Brekkan Spens, Ryan Tran, Emily Feimster, Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash and Victor Yerrid

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