Saturday, August 25, 2018

Hey, A Movie! Hopefully One That's Better Than The Happytime Murders!

Taking children's entertainment icons The Muppets and filtering them through an R-rated perspective is the central conceit of The Happytime Murders, a new raunchy comedy from director Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson. If that sounds like a slightly familiar premise, it's because Happytime Murders is one in a surprisingly long line of projects that have tackled this idea. Most notably, Peter Jackson provided a gruesome peek behind the curtain of a Muppet Show pastiche in 1989's Meet The Feebles while Broadway musical Avenue Q sent up Sesame Street with its depressingly realistic take on how unfulfilling adulthood can be. Both of these projects, especially Avenue Q, were of a level of quality that Happytime Murders only wishes it could rise to.

There's plenty to criticize here, but I think worst of all in The Happytime Murders is its sense of disjointedness, the screenplay (credited to Todd Berger) is full of story details that go nowhere, inconsistent characters and awkwardly executed jokes and all of that adds up quickly and saps any potential comedy out of the proceedings. The central story here is that former puppet cop turned puppet private eye Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) has found out that the almost entirely puppet cast members of the beloved TV show The Happytime Murders are being killed off one-by-one. In order to find out who could be behind these slayings, he's going to have to reluctantly team up with his former partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).

Such a reunion is complicated by how Phillips, who was the first ever puppet cop, got kicked off the force after he failed to shoot a puppet suspect and ended up making it impossible for puppets to get hired as law enforcement officers. This is a plot detail that ties into a larger idea about puppets being stand-in's for disenfranchised racial minority groups and it's, at best, a clunkily handled concept, especially considering that the vast majority of the puppet characters we see are either hardened criminals or some other type of unsavory low-lives. This sporadically present concept of puppet oppression rears its head again in the form of personal anguish for Connie Edwards, who was given a puppet liver in a life-or-death organ transplant and now feels like she doesn't belong as either a puppet or a human.

I know she feels that way only because she explicitly states it in a car ride with Phil Phillips, there's no prior indication whatsoever that she's having this problem. There are all kinds of sloppy storytelling decisions like that in The Happytime Murders, they're as plentiful here as bad puns are in Fozzie Bear's comedy act! Not very plentiful here though is the presence of notable puppet characters, Phil Phillips is our only puppet character of note in The Happytime Murders, with the rest of the puppet characters usually showing up for one scene before either dying or vanishing entirely. If you're gonna do a movie about a world where humans and puppets co-exist, why isn't more of the focus on said puppet characters? I can see humans in any movie, gimme some fun puppets! What a puzzling decision to relegate the puppets to the background so often, but even that isn't the worst aspect of this features script.

Worst of all in the writing is the jokes, the comedy here is mostly uninspired save for one clever joke in the third act wherein Connie Edwards struggles to read the lips of her puppet partner. Otherwise, the gags feel as phoned-in as the voicemail on your answering machine. Even attempts to be comedically in-your-face edgy are stifled by the films oddly outdated sensibility of what constitutes ribald and raunchy humor. The Happytime Murders seems to think the very existence of adult video stores is shocking, which makes it seem quaint compared to, say, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia or even Meet The Feebles from thirty years ago. Most of the attempts at vulgarity here lack the full-on commitment and wit found in those two other bawdy projects, The Happytime Murders just settles for thinking puppets saying the word "dick" is enough to get the audience in stitches.

These abysmal attempts at comedy are filmed through some uninspired filmmaking from director Brian Henson, who completely abandons all of the skillful filmmaking he demonstrated in directing The Muppets Christmas Carol 26 years ago. Here, poorly incorporated green-screen backgrounds and overly bright lighting highlight the artificiality of this world, thus ensuring that the version of our world that the characters of The Happytime Murders call home never feels like an actual tactile place. Clearly, aside from some solid work from the puppeteers and a delightful supporting performance from Maya Rudolph, The Happytime Murders just doesn't have a clue on what to do with its high-concept premise, which is just such a tragedy since there's so much potential in this premise that gets weighed down by lackluster comedy and filmmaking. Stay home and listen to the Avenue Q soundtrack instead, now there's a show that knows how to use raunchy puppets well! 

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