The Happytime Murders is brought to you by the letter B, as in “Bad.” And lest you think I’m being lazy using this joke, don’t worry – the film uses some variation on it within the first ten minutes. For despite its occasional funny joke or sight gag, there is little redeeming about Brian Henson’s raunchy puppet comedy. It is not funny. It is not enjoyable. It’s not even original – “raunchy puppet” is one of those clichéd oxymorons that Hollywood consistently attempts to milk, like “scary child,” or “funny Kevin James.” The Happytime Murders is a film so bad, you can audibly hear it scraping the bottom of the barrel.
In a parallel universe where humans and puppets coexist, puppets are treated as second-class citizens. This doesn’t sit well with former police officer and private detective Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a Robert de Niro-looking puppet with a grudge against the world. However, when Phil begins investigating a string of murders surrounding the cast of The Happytime Gang, the first majority-puppet television show which coincidentally starred his brother Larry (Victor Yerrid), Phil reluctantly finds himself reunited with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) in a quest to prevent any more puppets from being reduced to fluff.
The first thing you notice about The Happytime Murders is how broad it is, from the “comedy” to the “plot.” I mean, take a look at the opening scene, where it is revealed that puppets in this film are a stand-in for minorities. As opposed to Team America and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which cleverly infer their metaphor without laying it on too thick, and therefore allowing the satire to ebb and flow as needed, here we see the metaphor laid out in a lazy voiceover declaring, “Oh yeah, and us puppets is second-class citizens!” Not only does this defeat the purpose of the message, but it feels like the film is intentionally talking down to its audience, and there is nothing more grating than a dumb film trying to talk down to its audience. This sense of broad, asinine material also extends far beyond the general conceit, and into the comedy. Now, I won’t lie to you and claim that I never laughed during this movie. I did chuckle from time to time, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the jokes were actually well-formed and utilized their raunchiness well, like a Basic Instinct reference, a quick sequence of puppet BDSM, and a horrifically comical shot of inbred puppets. Sometimes the jokes were incredibly bad, but the wordplay (if you can call it that) stood out, like a character describing her deepest secret as being a sexual “Ima”, (as in “If I’ma next to it, I’ma f*ck it”) or sexually deviant rabbits declaring that their “Peter Rabbit” is aroused (I’m a child). And sometimes the puppet humor just works, like puppets trying to run or trying to smoke cigarettes. However, at the end of the day, there really isn’t much humor to the material beyond “Puppets are raunchy, and that’s funny.” Which would feel subversive if it weren’t for the fact we’ve already seen this idea done before – and better – in Crank Yankers, Team America, and especially Avenue Q. The film likes to present ideas that should be funny, but never actually puts in the effort to make it funny. Team America has proven that puppet violence and fight scenes can be funny, but if you don’t put effort into the joke beyond “Doesn’t this look dumb?” then the entire reason for the jokes falls away beyond “Melissa McCarthy just wrestled a puppet and bit its dick.” And speaking of dicks, let’s talk about the sexual material in this movie. Now, I’m no prude – sex jokes are funny, and they normally work involving puppets. However, the issue here is that the material just isn’t good. They aren’t funny, they serve no purpose, and they serve only to earn this film a hard R rating. It’s not like Avenue Q, which used sex to satirize the follies of dating in the modern age, or Team America, which used its Barbie-esque aesthetic to satirize big budget sex scenes. Here, the entire joke is, “This puppet wants to give her a BJ, and that puppet has bush.” Even more egregious is that every joke is Too Much, assuming that if they double down on even their most mediocre joke and drag it out for minutes on end, it will eventually make the joke funny. I’m here to tell you that silly string ejaculate is funny in small doses, but thirty seconds of just silly string ejaculate is exhausting.
However, I think what pissed me off the most about this film is just how dumb every character comes across. Now, comedy is absolutely the genre that best allows for idiotic characters, from Tommy Boy and There’s Something About Mary to anything by Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis. However, the reason that those films can work is that they a) keep the material grounded in reality, and b) put their buffoons into realistic settings. In order for a dumb character to thrive, every other character needs to be intelligent, or vice versa. The problem with this film is every character and decision is so insanely, gratingly stupid, I could never give myself over to the material. I consistently found myself asking, “Well why the f*ck would they do that?!?” The basic premise of the film is that the police would allow a former cop, one they had fired and, in fact, made a law about due to his shortcomings (a similarly idiotic plot point, but I’ll let it slide), serve as a consultant on his own brother’s murder. This is such an unrealistic, incomprehensible decision, the rest of the plot should not matter. Then there’s the fact that McCarthy, who is supposed to be one of the best officers on the force, randomly and for no discernable reason, decides to beat up innocent puppet bystanders while attempting to protect a target – a target who is then killed while the two officers dick around. I mean, our two heroes are also two of the dumbest characters in the film, and we’re supposed to treat them as the smartest characters. And when they are eventually fired from the force (as all buddy cops eventually are), we can’t even take pleasure in this turn of events, because they are randomly fired by an FBI agent despite the fact that the FBI does not have this capability. Nothing in this film matches any sense of reality, even inside of its own imaginary universe, and it is so irritatingly, confusingly dumb that it ruins any chance of just handing one’s self over to the stupidity of it all. It is a truly, truly bad plot.
And lest you think that the issues here lie solely with the concept, let’s talk about the other aspects of filmmaking, starting with the script. This is a bad script. Like, truly bad. It’s so bad I wrote the note, “This is a sh*t script” no less than four times. From the lazy voiceover to McCarthy’s terrible dialogue to the fact that they often have to explain their jokes to the audience after every delivery to the forced romantic angle in the finale that makes no g*ddamn sense, it’s amazing how completely and utterly inept Todd Berger’s screenplay is, from beginning to end. Most of the musical choices in the film are strange and terrible, from an on-the-nose use of “Good Day” to a bafflingly diegetic use of “Sexy And I Know It” during a 90s sequence. However, I will give the music credit for forming two of the film’s best jokes – an ironic use of “That’s What Friends Are For” and the fact that Joel McHale’s douchebag FBI agent listens to “Call Me Maybe.” And I can’t help but shake one question that followed me throughout the majority of the film: a major plot point revolves around a character having a crippling candy addiction. This is a somewhat cute idea, but it does raise the point that this film could have been PG or PG-13, chosen to ignore the cheap, lazy jokes, and crafted a Roger Rabbit-esque fable for kids and adults. If it serves no purpose to make this film a hard R, why bother? Still, for all my complaints and critiques, there are a few small victories I want to give this film. While the villain is somewhat easy to guess, there is a twist surrounding their motive that I found surprisingly well executed. And the knock-off Muppets actually do have a pretty incredible variety to them, from humorous to cool. But even with these few laudatory moments, I can’t ignore how terrible the film’s general aesthetic looks. From the top down, this is a film that is daring you to like it, and yet it’s difficult to ever desire taking the bait.
And lest you think any of the actors have any desire or capability of saving this movie, I’m here to tell you that almost every performance here ranges from “given up on life” to “should never work again.” Coming down in the middle of those two categories is lead McCarthy, who brings zero charm or charisma to her utterly unlikable character. It’s shocking to compare this role to even her previous film this year, Life of the Party, where she brought charm and pathos to another absurd little character, and the differences are striking. Still, at least she’s not as bad as Maya Rudolph. I love Maya Rudolph, and have defended her in a variety of films throughout the years – even The Emoji Movie. But allow me to declare right here and now that in this film, Rudolph gives what may be one of the worst performances I have ever seen. I hated everything about her character, about her performance, and by the end, I began to wonder if I had been too easy on her throughout the years. And then there’s Joel McHale, who seemed from minute one about ready to fire his agent. McHale is bad in the film, but I did find solace in playing a rousing rendition of, “How badly did he need the paycheck?” every time he showed up onscreen. Now, most of the human actors in this film are marvelously bad, but I do want to give a few shout outs to those who gave it their all. Michael McDonald (no, not that one) shows up briefly to bring some actual humor to the film. Leslie David Baker, aka Stanley from The Office, gives it his all from beginning to end, and his performance demonstrates that (even if his character made no f*cking sense). And Elizabeth Banks shows up briefly to do what she does best: take bad material and elevate to new heights. I love Banks as an actress, and anytime she shows up in the film, it is night and day. I don’t really have much to say about the puppeteers working on this film, although I guess I will say they do a fine job, and Barretta, Dorien Davies, and Drew Massey do a great job with their vocal work. However, I do want to quickly note that I found it incredibly disconcerting that Kevin Clash, the former Elmo actor/puppeteer who was let go from Sesame Street for alleged sexual misconduct with minors, appears here as a hardcore porn addicted rabbit. I’m not saying Clash should never work again, I just feel that this particular casting felt in poor taste.
The Happytime Murders is a film that kind of feels offensively bad. It’s not that the film is unwatchable, or even an example of terrible filmmaking (although it’s pretty close to both). No, what’s shocking is that the film takes the kind of high-concept filmmaking that we rarely see anymore and approaches it as if it were broad and easy. It’s bogging down a great idea with terrible execution, and that’s the worst kind of bad film. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve grown cynical in my old age. I mean, most of the audience at the screening I attended were rolling in the aisles pretty consistently. However, all I know is I’m a pretty easy target for comedy, and as I watched the end credits montage of the film’s best jokes, and a blooper reel showing the making of, all I kept thinking to myself was, “That wasn’t funny. Neither was that.” I’m disappointed in The Happytime Murders because I know it could do better. I know we deserved better. And I hope that whenever the inevitable Avenue Q movie is made, the producers use this as a learning curve for how not to make that picture.