Movie Review: Puppets Behave Badly, But Don’t Get Many Laughs, in ‘The Happytime Murders’ | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Movie Review: Puppets Behave Badly, But Don’t Get Many Laughs, in ‘The Happytime Murders’


Yes, there's puppet sex in this movie. Man, is there. If that prospect entices or repels you, I've already done my job. But if it's laughs you're after, know that the makers of The Happytime Murders didn't do theirs.

There's nothing wrong with the concept of a very R-rated comedy about puppets behaving badly, and nothing new about it. Peter Jackson put a dark spin on the Muppets in Meet the Feebles (1989); Matt Stone and Trey Parker staged an epic marionette sex scene in Team America: World Police (2004). Director Brian Henson, son of Jim, has obvious qualifications to take on similar material. But this poorly scripted (by Todd Berger), flabbily edited movie feels like more of a series of cheap shots ("Look, a puppet drug den! Puppet peep show! Puppet ejaculate!") than anything approaching wicked satire.

The film takes place in a world where humans and Muppet-style puppets coexist. The former prize the latter as entertainers while treating them like second-class citizens — a racial-allegory-tinged scenario reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

Here again, the setting is Los Angeles, the plot riffs on noir, and the protagonist is a gruff private eye — only this one, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), is made of felt. His career as the LAPD's first puppet cop ended badly, and he still bears a grudge against his human ex-partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). She returns the hate and then some, for reasons that gradually emerge.

The bickering pair is forced to team up after Phil's vapid actor brother is murdered — the second in a string of slayings of stars of the defunct kids' show "The Happytime Gang." Which of these washed-up puppet players (plus one sultry human [Elizabeth Banks]) is bumping off the others to monopolize a giant pot of syndication money?

The mystery is mostly an excuse for a series of set pieces that showcase adorable felt-and-fuzz critters in disreputable disarray: running drugs, taking drugs (in a recurring gag, sugar is puppet heroin), patronizing strip joints, vamping, camping and just plain getting it on. The scene featuring the aforementioned puppet ejaculate is typical: What could have been a decent raunchy sight gag is instead milked (pun intended) to the point of exhaustion.

As Henson's dad demonstrated throughout his career, it's quite possible to endow googly-eyed, hand-manipulated objects with human sympathies and complexities. In The Happytime Murders, by contrast, both felt and flesh characters feel inanimate.

Some of the supporting characters shine in funny bits, especially Maya Rudolph as Phil's gal Friday, but the lack of chemistry between McCarthy and her puppet costar drags the film down. We're supposed to be invested in Edwards' and Philips' enemies-to-buddy-cops saga. When their conflict doesn't take the form of chaotic slapstick, though, they're throwing terrible zingers at each other. ("Maybe I am Houdini." "I wish you would disappear.")

McCarthy wrings more laughs out of the scenes she plays with Rudolph and a strung-out puppet named Goofer (Drew Massey), who suggests a terrifying alterna-world version of the Muppets' addled dreamer Gonzo. These scenes give us flashes of the more delirious puppet-sex movie that might have been.

For the most part, though, The Happytime Murders trades on archetypes, banter and puns that would have felt shopworn even in the Muppets' heyday. ("Come again?" Phil asks a seductive client [Dorien Davies]. "And again, and again," she purrs.) While it may be naughtier than its G-rated counterparts, it's not any smarter. Those who come seeking twisted laughs may leave feeling, well, jerked around.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Happytime Murders"