“The Happytime Murders” is crass, foul, profane and objectively terrible. Yet, it is oddly entertaining. Director Brian Henson, who previously produced family-friendly puppet fare, has a pretty twisted mind.
The film revolves around a puppet named Phil Phillips, played by Bill Barretta, who works as a private detective in Los Angeles with his human secretary Bubbles, played by Maya Rudolph. In the world of “The Happytime Murders,” puppets live alongside humans and are horribly mistreated and reviled. Phillips, the first and only puppet to work for the LAPD — before he was fired, that is — investigates a (silly) string of murders of the former cast members of a puppet-centered television show titled “The Happytime Gang.” The alcoholic detective is soon accompanied by Connie Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy. Connie harbors deep prejudices against puppets, especially Phillips, rooted in a tragic past. Together, these two partners embark on a quest involving sights I certainly had no intention of ever witnessing. And I wish I could forget them, but I can’t.
The writing rule “show, don’t tell” means if a story wants to portray a message (such as a character’s feelings, motivations, backstory, etc.), it should be expressed through action, senses and feeling, not blatantly stated like a book summary off of Sparknotes. “The Happytime Murders” often carries this out, but with situations so horrendously disgusting I wish the film wasn’t as detailed as it is.
Indeed, sex jokes are the joke of choice in “The Happytime Murders.” Nearly every scene features raunchy jokes or comments about genitalia and intercourse. This even includes puppet pornography, presented in graphic detail early in the film. Who wouldn’t want to see that? Me, that’s who. Later on, a gratuitous sex scene occurs, complete with silly string flying around like blood in a Tarantino shootout. It’s high quality cinema if you’re intoxicated, of particularly poor taste or both.
Besides the pervasively puerile comedy, the film had an opportunity to make comments on the current state of puppet movies, as well as on injustice and overcoming prejudice. In some instances, “The Happytime Murders” is almost poignant, strengthened by the surprisingly endearing chemistry between Philips, Edwards and the police chief Lieutenant Banning, played by Leslie David Baker of “The Office” fame. These three characters are likable from the get-go, fitting snugly into familiar, yet reliably entertaining archetypes.
Well, almost poignant. Then the film goes back to the sex jokes and the immature, juvenile comedy the writers seem to be wholly enamored with.
The mystery itself, involving classic noir cliches, is serviceable but way too predictable. While the film revels in debauchery, the actual mystery of who killed “The Happytime Gang” is spelled out to viewers. Characters often insult viewers’ intelligence by explaining outcomes or connections even a toddler could have pieced together.
It sounds like I hate this movie, I know. But, truth be told, I couldn’t look away. “The Happytime Murders” fully commits to what it is — an R-rated comedy featuring puppets. You’ve got to give the filmmakers some respect for going all out.
In fact, I’d recommend this film over “The Meg,” as that film had no clear identity and often featured dramatic scenes that had no place in a film involving a Megalodon shark eating people as if in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“The Happytime Murders” could become a cult classic for filmgoers looking to switch off their brains and revel in strangely watchable stupidity. If in a packed theater of people willing to check their intelligence at the door, the film could prove entirely entertaining.
Even so, films such as this sadden me a bit. “The Happytime Murders” got a pretty wide release, much wider than “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” or “Sorry to Bother You,” which are both superior films. The saving grace is that “The Happytime Murders” bombed at the box office, which gives me some hope for humanity. There doesn’t need to be a sequel, god forbid a whole franchise.
“The Happytime Murders” will kill viewers’ brain cells. But what did you expect?