The biggest question that arises when it comes to a film like The Happytime Murders is ‘how?’. How did a concept so weird and seemingly brilliant amount to a film so lacklustre and boring? How can a project that’s been circling around Hollywood for so many years feel half-finished? The answer likely lies in a million different things, but that doesn’t make the end result any less disappointing.
Brian Henson’s attempt to bring his family business into R-rated territory could have been great, but instead The Happytime Murders is a pedestrian cum joke stretched to 91-minutes.
The film follows Los Angeles private investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), an ex-cop who was banned from the force after a police shooting gone wrong, which resulted in the death of a bystander and his partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) being given a puppet liver.
Common consensus is now that ‘puppets don’t shoot puppets’, and the once pioneering Philips is now forced to work in the seedy parts of a city that treats his kind like second-class citizens. When someone starts picking off members of the ‘Happytime Gang’ – a sitcom not unlike a naughtier Muppet Show – he is forced to investigate what might be a larger conspiracy.
Your opinion of the film will depend a lot on how the above description makes you feel. Make no mistake, the film doesn’t make a lick of sense, and the internal logic of this Roger Rabbit-esque society was clearly not a major concern in the writing process. To have even a slightly good time with this film, you have to give yourself over to the madness. Madness can be fun.
It’s a bit of a tragedy, then, that the parts of The Happytime Murders that are genuinely interesting and/or hilarious are so few and far between. For every Muppets-level sight gag or surreal one-liner, there’s a lengthy and repetitive “asshole says what” joke or characters repeatedly mistaking McCarthy for a man. Too many times the audience are left wondering if they’re missing something, or if the joke was really that lame.
More disconcerting even than an octopus milking a cow’s udders as part of a sex act (it has to be seen to be believed) is the racial allegory that Happytime goes for but misses wildly. This hits Bright levels of bad judgement, as characters are subjected to racial profiling and discrimination, and puppets engage in surgery and skin-lightening in order to be more acceptable in a human world.
But Happytime Murders isn’t at all interested in following up on that concept, using it instead as a stand-in for depth and world-building. It’s comes off as indecently tone deaf in 2018, and isn’t helped by a sexist and bi-phobic thread running through other parts of the film.
Bad and offensive aren’t the same thing, so if Happytime Murders had been at all sharp and inventive a lot of these sins would have been more forgivable. But even the film noir element is played straight, never subverted further than ‘wouldn’t it be funny if puppets…’.
At least the human performers are game, with McCarthy, Maya Rudolph as Philips’ assistant Bubbles, and ex-Happytime Gang member Elizabeth Banks all giving charming turns in underserved roles. Joel McHale is also fun as the curmudgeonly FBI agent investigating the murders.
Oddly, for a film that’s been worked on for so long, this feels like it could have done with another draft or two, tightening up the story and identifying the few jokes that really land.
All of this said, once the credits start to roll, and you see the work involved in making any movie of this kind, you may find your annoyance softening. It’s impossible for something as intricate as this to be dubbed a ‘lazy’ film, but rather its flaws feel more to do with wonky judgement and a clash between decade-old and modern comedic sensibilities.
For some reason, turning The Muppets and their extended universe friends into modern-day Hollywood figures doesn’t work, also proven by 2015’s similarly adult (but PG) attempt at giving Henson’s creations their own contemporary sitcom format. The natural relevance for these characters comes and goes in waves, but a good film is always a good film.
Happytime Murders is sadly not that movie, and we’ll likely have to wait a while for another.
No Kermit, all calamity.