US, China / 91 minutes / color / STX Entertainment, Huayi Brothers, Black Bear, TMP, On the Day, Henson Alternative, Jim Henson Company Dir: Brian Henson Pr: Brian Henson, Jeffrey Hayes Scr: Todd Berger Story: Todd Berger, Dee Austin Robertson Cine: Mitchell Amundsen Puppetry: Kevin Clash (Puppet Captain), Dorien Davies, Alice Dinnean, Jayden Libran, Drew Massey, Ten Michaels, Colleen Smith, Allan Trautman, Victor Yerrid Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Cynthy Wu, Michael McDonald Voice cast: Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Victor Yerrid, Drew Massey, Allan Trautman.
Owing far more of a conceptual debt to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988) than it might care to admit, The Happytime Murders is set in an alternate Los Angeles where humans and puppets live alongside each other, although with puppets being generally discriminated against and treated as lesser beings. While its precursor, which specifically references the real-life circumstances underpinning CHINATOWN (1974), is open to reading as a piece of neonoir, albeit a decidedly oddball one, The Happytime Murders is more of a gambol through the clichés, including noirish ones, of the Hollywood school of crime movies, including erotic thrillers and other direct-to-video effusions. (There’s also the occasional direct reference to well known cinematic precursors, such as to Sharon Stone’s sartorial revelation in 1992’s BASIC INSTINCT.)
A dozen years ago Phil Philips (voiced by Barretta) was the only puppet cop in the LAPD, partnered withthe human Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy). One day a standoff went wrong. Shooting at the thug who had Connie in a stranglehold, Phil missed, instead hitting a passerby, Jasper Jacoby, who died there on the sidewalk in front of his wailing daughter.
Accused of missing deliberately because “puppets won’t shoot puppets,” Phil was drummed out of the LAPD and now operates a rundown detective agency with his human secretary, Bubbles (Rudolph).
Today he has a new client, Sandra White (voiced by Davies). She tells him she’s being blackmailed over her incurable nymphomania. A clue takes him to a porn store run by an old friend of his. While Phil’s going through possible evidence in the back office, a hooded shooter enters and commits carnage, one of the victims being the rabbit puppet Augustus Bumblypants (voiced by Clash), whom Phil knew from the days when both Bumblypants and Phil’s brother Larry (voiced by Yerrid) were part of the hugely successful TV show The Happytime Gang, the pride of the Puppet Television Network.
Soon Sandra’s case is shoved to the back of Phil’s mind as he and Connie Edwards, forced by LAPD Lieutenant Banning (Baker), despite her vociferous protests, to partner Phil in the investigation, try to find out who’s systematically knocking off the past members of the Happytime Gang. They also have to contend with the interference of the FBI’s boneheaded Agent Campbell (McHale).
A visit to the show’s former producer, the narcissistic bigot Ronovan Scargle (McDonald), gives a big fat clue as to what’s going on. As Phil summarizes to Connie,
“According to the contract, The Happytime Gang TV show’s about to be sold into syndication. The seven principal Happytime Gang cast members are guaranteed to split the ten million dollars up front. . . . If a member dies, then his or her spouse gets the share. If there is no spouse, then the share is divided equally among the remaining living cast members.”
The killings go on, one of the victims being the show’s only human cast member, Jenny Peterson (Banks), who used to have a thing going with Phil and who’s now reduced to working as a pole dancer.
In true Marlowesque fashion the two cases—the murders and Sandra White’s little problem—prove to be not just connected but inextricably intertwined . . .
All of this is told using the maximum amount of scatological language and general obscenity, to the extent that after a while I grew positively weary of being pounded by the incessant profanity, the dick jokes, the sex jokes, the excretory jokes . . . If more of the humor had hit its mark I might have been rendered a bit less rolling-eyed by it all, but by far the majority of the jokes are pretty limp, so the net result was, at least for me, rather like listening to an obnoxious pre-adolescent trying to impress the grown-ups by lacing his every remark with gratuitous expletives.
A few years earlier, McCarthy had an equally foul-mouthed role in a cop movie, playing opposite Sandra Bullock in The Heat (2013). There, though, the obscenities are being put to good use: we laugh at them both because of the absurdity (even if mimetic) that McCarthy’s character should be possessed of so limited a vocabulary and because McCarthy’s ribaldry is juxtaposed against the tightassed prissiness of Bullock’s FBI agent. In The Happytime Murders, where obscenity is the default lingua franca of all the characters, the effect isn’t humorous: just, as I say, wearisome.
The movie’s closing credits last an astonishing 12 minutes! Most of the gazillion credits are as you might imagine technical ones—effects, animation, puppetry, etc.—and it’s easy to see where all that expertise was deployed: the technical challenges involved in making The Happytime Murders must have been extreme. Even while admiring the achievement involved in that aspect of the movie, though, we have to wonder whether the rest was worth so much effort.