By Jim Slotek
There’s a moment in the opening act of The Happytime Murders where you might think director Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s son) is actually intent on defiling his late dad’s Muppet legacy in truly imaginative ways.
Puppet ex-cop Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta) is tracking a murder threat clue to a porn shop devoted entirely to the tastes of the cloth-and-stuffing population. A door opens, and we see an octopus eagerly milking a cow that’s lying on its back. We’re talking all udders at once.
But that’s a mere tease in a movie where the humour is generally at the “A—holes say ‘what?’” – “What?” level, below where even Adam Sandler would go. The younger Henson has made it his mission to bring an edge to the parent company within its HA! (Henson Alternative) division. And The Happytime Murders is an all-out offensive towards that end. Literally.
The jokes have been workshopped in front of improv audiences, and the grossest ones kept as props for a plot the movie sticks to as if it were serious. There’s nothing inherently wrong with turning the style (if not the actual characters) of the Muppets into fodder for gross-out adult humour. But did we really need the umpteen-hundredth riff on the Sharon Stone interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, where the punchline involves the purple hair not matching the carpet? (Let alone have a call-back to the explicit scene, which wasn’t that funny to begin with).
And isn’t it a little on-the-nose when a crab puppet (voiced by the director) says, “C’mon, baby, I know you’ve had crabs before?”
Yes, it’s kind of cute-funny that the climax of a puppet sex scene involves Silly String flying all over the place. But for the record, the most insanely demented depiction of puppet sex remains the one in Team America: World Police, and there’s little of that film’s scabrous “nothing is too far” spirit in The Happytime Murders.
The movie takes place in a Los Angeles where, inexplicably, humans and puppets live together – though the latter are abused, second class citizens and sex toys. Philips is a cop-turned-private-detective (the first and only puppet to serve on the LAPD), and he has a hate on for his ex-partner, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who testified against him in a shootout-gone-wrong.
But their paths are fated to cross when a sexaholic puppet client hires Phil to identify her would-be murderer and he stumbles on a plot to assassinate the entire cast of an old-but-beloved puppet sitcom called The Happytime Gang (featuring one human character, Jenny, played by Elizabeth Banks, who’s Phil’s ex-girlfriend).
Phil's adoring secretary (Maya Rudolph) and his stereotyped-angry squad boss (The Office’s Leslie David Baker) are the only ones in Phil’s corner, with and is intent on seeing his favourite partners back together. Meanwhile, a nasty FBI agent (Community’s Joel McHale) is intent on nailing Phil as the serial killer.
At about 90 minutes, that’s still way too much plot for a movie that really just wants to throw F-bombs and puppet puns at you. (“Ashes to ashes – fluff to fluff.”). There’s enough promise in The Happytime Murders for it to possibly work as a short-lived, gimmicky Comedy Network series. But the effort that’s put into stretching this gag over the length of a feature film is more painful than funny.
The Happytime Murders. Directed by Brian Henson. Written by Todd Berger. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph and voiced by Bill Barretta. Opens wide, Friday, August 24.