Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Happytime Murders

After being in and out of development for the better part of a decade (delays included a legal battle with Sesame Street), The Happytime Murders finally has made its way to theaters. Directed by Jim Henson's son Brian Henson, the film is juvenile, crude, and certainly lacking in likable characters. That said, it also made me laugh, and (perhaps most importantly) it never bored me.

The story takes place in a world where living puppets are commonplace, although most humans treat them as second-class citizens. In the style of a gumshoe film noir, our lead is surly puppet detective Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) who gets drawn into a series of murders that tie back to a popular television show involving his friends and family.

For good measure, the film adds a classic femme fatale (Dorien Davies) and Phil's gruff, but honest, narration as he works through the case. (I almost wish it had been made in black and white.) The investigation also brings Phil back together with his former partner (Melissa McCarthy) whose testimony got him thrown off the police force years before.

While the film certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea, and is far from high entertainment, The Happytime Murders knows exactly what it is and never attempts to stray too far from its lewd puppet comedy center. Despite some lulls in the story, the movie has a consistent tone featuring a wide range of dark and lowbrow humor including a puppet porn shop, puppet sex, and a series of puppet murders. Despite its tone, the movie never pushes beyond the bar of bad taste (even the "gruesome" puppet murders are pretty damn wholesome by today's standards).

Although the puppets are the main stars (including some funny outtakes during the credits), the human cast is filled with familiar faces of actors given roles in their wheelhouse. These include McCarthy doing her regular shtick (which I found oddly more palpable when it involved puppets rather than Jason Bateman), Maya Rudolph as Phil's stalwart secretary, Joel McHale as a dickish FBI agent, Elizabeth Banks as Phil's ex, and Leslie David Baker as the supportive police lieutenant. None of these are roles they are likely to be remembered for, but they do help populate the unusual world where Phil's story unfolds.

If you were expecting The Muppet Movie or even a Greg the Bunny feature, you are going to leave the theater disappointed. This movie includes a twelve-armed reach around an extended sequence involving a ridiculous amount of silly string (if you need to ask, this movie is probably not for you). Personally, I was expecting a trainwreck. While I wouldn't argue too strenuously against those who don't like the film, I do think its intended audience is going to have fun (even if the majority of the audience may not know what to make of it).

There are certainly areas one could nitpick. Not all the outrageous puppet sequences work as well as they should and some of the puppet movements could be a little cleaner, the movie does suffer from a series of lulls between the insanity, and story is pretty standard fare. The Happytime Murders has all the signs of a film that struggled to get made, but if you can buy into Phil's character you may find a movie that you enjoy as a bit of a guilty pleasure.

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