Hi there, everyone! This Happytime Murders review is brought to you by the letter “I.” Insipid. Imbeciles. Incomprehensible. Insane. You can use that last word in a sentence such as “The person that thought this witless, crude black noire puppet farce would be a rousing crowd-pleaser must be insane.” The letter also can be used on its own, as in “I think we have a strong contender for the worst film of 2018.”
Let’s address the stuffed elephant in the room: This scathing review isn’t a case of a critic not having the bawdy sense of humor gene required to appreciate crass humor, OK? Married with Children and Howard Stern are two of my all-time favorite pop culture touchstones. I have a brother. I’m not offended or shocked by the sight of two puppets having porn star sex. Just make it brutally funny and inspired. The Happytime Murders simply goes for the lowest common denominator of comedy from beginning to end. And those 90 minutes in between are excruciating. Let me put it in italics for emphasis. Excruciating.
This was never going to be a genius hybrid of Avenue Q meets The Great Muppet Caper. Not with this old-timey set-up: Hard-nosed detective Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) is the only puppet to have ever served on the police force. Now he’s a private eye working on behalf of marginalized puppets in Los Angeles. After his brother gets stuffed out, he starts investigating and realizes that someone is killing all the stars of a popular 80s kids TV show called The Happytime Gang. Who would do such a thing?! And who would care.
To solve the case, Phil is paired with his former human partner. She’s played by Melissa McCarthy, who does her usual obnoxious, tough-talking caricature shtick. The two are not on good terms, as evidenced by the fact that McCarthy bites down on Phil’s man part in a moment of pent-up rage. The novelty of puppets acting like lewd rejects from Sausage Party or Team America: World Police is already worn off by the time McCarthy enters the picture. She does nothing with the limp script. Same goes for Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale and Elizabeth Banks.
The tangled web of The Happytime Gang syndication contract negotiations won’t raise anyone’s pulse, so the filmmakers (writer Todd Berger and director Brian Henson) rely heavily on the R-rated shock factor. The piece de resistance, as seen in The Happytime Murders trailer, involves a graphic and messy sexual encounter that drags on and on and on until all traces of laughter have been metaphorically squeezed out. You’ll see that in Act 1. Or, you know, just watch the trailer for free. You’ll only miss the blue pubic hair jokes. And a Basic Instinct gag that’s 26 years old.
There actually is a place and time for puppets behaving badly. Even a family-driven product as accessible as The Muppet Show had an air of subversion — and Kermit the Frog and Justin Timberlake once wrestled each other on a memorable episode of Saturday Night Live. But despite Henson’s lineage as the son of late Muppets creator (and genius) Jim Henson, The Happytime Murders is a terribly misguided move. Indeed, it doesn’t take an investigator with a heart of felt to figure out that a half-baked flick with poorly executed ideas and lazy use of gross-out humor will end up DOA.
The Happytime Murders opens in theaters on Friday, August 24.
Also published on Medium.