The Happytime Murders (2018)
Director: Brian Henson
Writer: Todd Berger, Dee Austin Robertson
Starring: Bill Barretta, Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash
From Brian Henson, the mind behind some of the best puppet-centred comedies around, comes an adults only buddy-cop comedy in which puppets get into more trouble than ever before. Following the brutal murder of a puppet from the hit comedy 'The Happytime Gang', fellow puppet Phil Philson, (voiced by Bill Barretta) a disgraced and former LAPD detective, begrudgingly teams up with his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (played by Melissa McCarthy) to track down the killer before the remaining Happytime Gang cast members meet the same fate. It sounds wacky, and it certainly is that, taking the age-old Hollywood concept that is the buddy-cop comedy and setting it within a nonsense world where puppets can star in hardcore porn and are commonly addicted to sugar. Much like in the hit west-end production Avenue Q, The Happytime Murders provides an ideal opportunity to combine a juvenile concept with an adult one, and the film certainly grabs this opportunity by the horns and stubbornly refuses to let go.
Within minutes of this film beginning, different puppets are engaging in bizarre sexual behaviour and blurting out offensive language like it's going out of fashion, while the violence committed against many of the artificial characters would be inappropriate for a teen comedy if perpetrated against humans. The first act can only be described as an onslaught of sordid jokes, ranging from unsubtle euphemisms to explicit visualisations of puppet intercourse. Sadly, there is only so long that the 'puppets-behaving-badly' gag can remain funny, and it's a surprisingly short amount of time. Henson's film pins a lot of its comedic weight on slapstick, with drug, sex and violence being juxtaposed against the cute furriness of our Kermit-like characters in a barage of debauchery. It's funny, sure, but will rarely summon anything more than a bemused scoff.
It is a wasted opportunity, and for all of the film's flaws its clumsy use of humour is the one which is by far the most frustrating. One of The Happytime Murders' main plot points toys with the very topical concepts of civil unrest and social inequality, laying down countless opportunities for the film to take a probing look at the current state of many Western societies, and the prejudice and subsequent restrictions which appear to be infiltrating and growing within mainstream attitudes across the globe. Sadly, The Happytime Murders neglects the chance to morph into an astute satire, and instead gives us a seemingly endless cycle of jokes centred on class A drug use, pornography and ejaculation.
It's only when we enter the second act its the plot is truly allowed to get underway, with a noticeable and merciful dilution of the sex and drugs jokes being remarkably apparent. It is here where the film's simple murder mystery plot begins to shine through, and this buddy cop film begins to build some momentum. It's by no means ground-breaking, but the adventure that McCarthy's Edwards and Barretta's Philson go on is one which is happily entertaining and should have no problem holding your attention. The chemistry between the two leads is also surprisingly effective considering one of them is artificial, and their tumultuous partnership possesses an undeniable warming quality which is probably largely to thank for this film's continued ticking forward.
Melissa McCarthy proves here that an expert command of comic timing and delivery will only get you so far if the script you are given fails to offer you anything worthwhile, with the majority of her lines falling flat, and each seeming to be followed by an awkward pause that the viewer's laughter is presumably supposed to fill. Given better lines it is indisputable that she would have locked in another powerhouse comedic performance, but with so much attention given to the depraved antics of her furry co-stars, it is one which is unable to shine through.
Barretta's Phil Philson is similarly underserved. His character is ideally placed at the sharp end of a social injustice and, while the film somewhat acknowledges and addresses this, much more could be done with character we are presented with. Instead of acting as the personification of the disenfranchisement and oppression of a social underclass, Philson is instead given the less inciting and less inspiring role of a grumpy, chain-smoking private eye with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge to hold.
In melding together the two seemingly opposing concepts of puppetry and violent crime, The Happytime Murders certainly succeeds. Frustratingly, in a refusal to refrain from telling the same joke, this film misses several opportunities to transform into a more shrewd satirical comedy, despite one its running themes providing the perfect backdrop. It is only the suitably interesting and solid murder mystery plot line which will likely be your motivation to keep watching beyond its audacious opening act.
In one line: Given a more sophisticated and astute brand of humour this buddy-cop comedy could have soared, but even Melissa McCarthy can't lift The Happytime Murders into the realm of high-quality comedy.