Look, if you saw the trailer, what else would you be expecting?
In fact, at the risk of being obnoxious, I would question the necessity of a review for this movie if not for the fact that it’s a passion project that’s kinda getting its ass kicked by critics. Some were even deriding it as the worst movie of the summer, probably because they haven’t yet gotten around to Action Point (which is well-intentioned but painfully immature), Breaking In (which is boring and shockingly racist), or Gotti (CRITICS PUT OUT THE HIT, DECIDE FOR YOURSELF). I mean, I don’t want to step on any crotches here; if puppets making crass dick jokes while running through a bog-standard buddy cop movie that doesn’t seem interested in making any strong points pisses you off that much, then who am I to call you crazy? Okay, you’d think a passion project would be more than this, but some people are motivated to make high art that highlights uncomfortable but important truths about ourselves and our society, and some people just want to make puppets swear at each other and snort sugar like cocaine.
Welcome, then, to the world of The Happytime Murders, a world where humans of all races, genders, creeds, and sexualities have come together to crush those dirty fucking puppets under their bootheels. Your guide to this world is Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta, the puppeteer behind The Muppets’ Rowlf the Dog, Pepe the Prawn, and The Swedish Chef), a disgraced puppet ex-cop (the first and last) now working as a private eye out of a rundown office alongside his faithful secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph). A case he’s working on behalf of puppet vixen Sandra (Dorien Davies) leaves him entangled in a massacre at a puppet porno shop that claimed four puppet lives, including the life of a puppet who used to work on the groundbreaking puppet TV show The Happytime Gang. Other cast members start dying, and Phil is forced to team up with his drug-addicted human ex-partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to try and catch this deranged serial killer, whose potential victims include Phil’s former lover Jenny (Elizabeth Banks).
If you’ve seen even a handful of cop movies, you know how this goes. Pissed-off captain? Check. Suspension at the end of the second act? Check. Armed standoffs with human shields? Check and check. Brian Henson didn’t come to blow your mind; the only twist here is that these are puppets acting out the turns, not for any great reason besides Brian Henson thinking it’s funny. It’s a world where puppets and humans live together, but there’s no thought put into what that world would actually look like. It’s a world where puppets are second-class citizens, but it doesn’t use that sociopolitical setup to make any powerful observations about how we’re dealing with our fellow Americans in the real world being treated like second-class citizens.
It’s important to note that I’m not marking any of this against The Happytime Murders. Frankly, the film’s interest in being little more than a 90-minute Funny or Die sketch works to its advantage. It knows what it is. It knows that this is a world that’s impossible to take entirely seriously, thus making it impossible to be heard if it ever wants to get onto a soapbox and preach about, say, the evils of racism. Therefore, it stays in its lane and just tries to make you laugh; if you want to get edgy, you can say this makes The Happytime Murders more socially responsible than the last R-rated cop movie set in a fantasy Los Angeles, Bright.
Will it make you laugh, though? Well, that’s always the rub with comedy. I’ll say this (mild spoilers): Early in the movie, it’s revealed that Connie Edwards has a puppet liver. Her drug addiction? More like a sugar addiction, since her puppet liver allows her to ingest the ultra-concentrated sugar that usually kills humans but gets degenerate puppets super high. At one point, Edwards starts monologuing—earnestly—about how having her puppet liver strands her between worlds; not quite puppet, not quite human. Now if you’re a nerd who’s bothered by the fact that human-compatible puppet livers are a thing even though the insides of these puppets, whenever we see them (which is very, very often), appear to be entirely fluff, then maybe stay the hell away from this movie and save yourself the cringe. But if you’re laughing your ass off just thinking about Melissa McCarthy having a puppet liver, then buddy, your ride is here.
That’s what keeps The Happytime Murders above water for me: It’s lowbrow and easy, sure, but it’s completely earnest and sincere about it. Brian Henson might shoot the film more like a traditional studio comedy and not like, say, Walter Hill in his prime, but it’s hard to hold his focus on performances against him when his cast of puppeteers and humans are stepping way up. Bill Barretta, in particular, does fantastic work as Phil Phillips, getting the burned-out sick-of-this-shit PI character down cold, down to the little gestures and under-the-breath mutterances. In turn, Melissa McCarthy is playing the same role we’re used to seeing from her, but she easily squeezes more juice out of it, and she bounces well off Barretta’s puppeteer work. These two do a great job of keeping you engaged as the film runs through a mostly predictable mystery and various hit-or-miss gags. While it’s not an ideal situation, it sure doesn’t hurt to watch.
At the end of the day, The Happytime Murders is harmless adult fun, and I feel like it was designed to be harmless adult fun. The usual issues apply when it comes to “harmless” comedy: no movie that played it safe was ever truly great. Still, with a couple of exceptions (Crazy Rich Asians, Never Goin’ Back), it’s been a fairly grim August in film and in life, and a hassle-free bit of raunch carries its own appeal in such times. Such compliments might be backhanded, but the thing about a movie that doesn’t suck is, well, it doesn’t suck.
Watch the trailer here:
All images courtesy of STX Entertainment
Directed by Brian Henson
Screenplay by Todd Berger; Story by Todd Berger & Dee Austin Robertson
Produced by Brian Henson, Jeff Hayes, Jason Lust
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 91 minutes