Imagine your typical cliché-ridden, bargain-bin crime thriller. You know, the kind your father would cut out part of the day to watch on a Sunday afternoon and that was never meant to cost more than $5 on DVD at Wal-Mart. Got it in your brain? Good, now take out half the characters – the jaded detective, the mysterious woman, the den of crooks the leads have to visit to get information – and replace them all with puppets. And not the fun kind of puppets who would sing and dance and do a total send-up of the genre. Nope, just anthropomorphic pieces of felt filled with cotton, acting out a lame-duck mystery. That is The Happytime Murders, and it’s as unappealing as it sounds.
Why the movie was made this way, I will never know. Clearly the attempt was to take the private-eye mystery noir and do it with puppets – but still have the movie take place in the real world with real humans. Crazy, right? The idea is that somehow, someway, puppets live alongside humans as a disenfranchised community of citizens. It would be futile to try and dig into how the movie tries to play out this commentary and reflect it with our own through a satirical lens, but the short answer is it doesn’t. Humans hate puppets. Why? I don’t know. They just do, and we’re supposed to sit down, shut up, and accept it as complex subtext. I assume it will be to many a’ Pringle-munching stoners.
There’s one cop who feels particularly victimized by humans – Phil Phillips (all the other clever puppet names were taken) – once the first puppet on the police force and is now a P.I. after he missed a shot fired at a criminal druggie puppet. Upon missing the shot it’s determined that, clearly, puppets won’t shoot other puppets, making him unfit to be a cop. We learn that in missing his shot the bullet accidentally hits another, civilian puppet, thus making the previous logic crumble before us. But, hey, what do I know. I only watched the movie and listened to the dialogue that was written in a script.
Voiced by Bill Barretta, Philips is meant to be some hard-nosed, tough P.I. caricature, which perhaps would’ve been funny had the rest of the puppet world around him been bright and colorful a la The Muppets (possibly even in a puppets-only world), he the only scrooge among them. But this is not that world, and watching him dig through the mystery of who is killing cast members of an old puppet TV show (The Happytime Gang) is unbelievably dull given the filmmakers don’t find any ways to make this world partially filled with puppets even slightly imaginative. There are seedy stores and run-down crime dens he ventures to, all filled with puppets, but the lack of a clever script or strong direction means these scenarios are lacking charm, wit or proper punch, each being buoyed by the hope you’ll find the content shocking enough to laugh at. It’s not. It’s human porno mags replaced with rabbit porno mags, cocaine replaced with purple sugar, and maple syrup instead of hard liquor.
Along for the ride is Phillips’ former partner, Connie Edwards, played by the poor, poor Melissa McCarthy. Was this a case of being chained to a contract? Did they lock the doors and not let her escape? It seems like someone brought her in, told her to play the loud, boisterous-type character she can do in her sleep, and refused to let her go until she did. She is so much better than this, and hopefully those who let her do this pay for their crimes.
The two have a troubled past, but as is the case in other similarly lazy, uninspired buddy-cop movies they seem to just come together and easily work out their problems. They spend WAY too much time explaining themselves in front of their Lieutenant (Leslie David Baker), only to come to convenient conclusions about what’s happening with all these puppet deaths. I know this movie isn’t exactly meant to be Se7en or Zodiac, but you would think it would at least have the intelligence of a run-of-the-mill Law and Order episode.
In 2004 a movie came out called Team America: World Police, which was done entirely with marionette puppets. The director, Trey Parker, and his co-writers, Matt Stone and Pam Brady, pulled off the movie brilliantly because a.) the whole world was made up of puppets, so each frame could have something odd and inventive going on and b.) the humor came from the puppets: fight and sex scenes that involved them mashing up against each other, awkward motions, etc. Happytime could’ve learned a lesson there, as what cripples the movie is that the humor and ingenuity rest entirely on the notion that because puppets say “fuck” and do drugs that it must be groundbreaking. Ultimately, these puppets are as boring as the human clichés they’re replacing, made worse by the fact the movie is shot in the blandest locations LA has to offer. So much pressure was put on the puppets to bring in the laughs, but the best ideas the movie comes up with is “some are hookers!”
If the movie does earn a chuckle it’s when it embraces the sheer absurdity of the premise, including a puppet sex scene involving whipped cream as ejaculate, or when a puppet victim washes up on a beach and is wrung like an old towel before being placed in a body bag. Not enough praise can go to the brilliant Maya Rudolph, who gets the most out of the ditzy secretary Bubbles, including what had to be several improvised moments of genius. She is the movie’s shining light, and without her this would be a pit of endless darkness.
The worst part about reflecting on this movie is it reminds me very much of one of last year’s worst efforts – the Netflix cop-fantasy-drama BRIGHT – in which Will Smith and Joel Edgerton play human and orc cops who navigate the dirty streets of LA, wherein certain magical creatures are treated like second-class citizens. That means between Happytime and Bright we’ve seen two movies in less than a year that try to play with the crime genre and act as a commentary on modern social issues but end up sucking on all fronts. Now, I ain’t no fancy filmmaker, but I’d like to think both of these movies would’ve been better had they nixed the humans and created a whole new world to run amok in. But like how Bright is endlessly bland and dumb, Happytime is almost never funny, never smart and never bold enough to embrace the filthy absurdity of the premise – which is a damn waste. What we are left with is a typical, dull, predictable, unfunny crime thriller that’s made all the worse when you realize it would’ve been brilliant had the Muppets taken over and been allowed to go wild.