‘Happytime Murders’ review: Welcome to puppet, comedy and movie hell

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

“The Happytime Murders” is a one-joke movie, minus one joke. The year may cough up a worse film but probably not a more joyless, witless one, raunchy or otherwise.

This one’s raunchy, not otherwise. It’s a private eye spoof full of rough puppet sex and lingering depictions of puppet semen, copious and mid-air. The mystery hinges on close-ups of female puppet pubic hair. Every other exchange between Melissa McCarthy (as an LAPD detective) and her disgraced puppet ex-partner, a Bogart knockoff named Phil Philips, settles for eff-you-this and eff-you-that. Puppets are depicted as marginalized, humiliated, bullied second-class citizens in a cold human world, so it’s an allegory for white-on-black-and-brown-and-yellow racism in the real world.

That’s a workable premise, actually. But five minutes into director Brian Henson’s movie, written by Todd Berger, I’d forgotten how to laugh. I may never laugh again. “The Happytime Murders” goes so far as to render the fabulous Maya Rudolph, who plays Phil’s loyal Gal Friday, criminally mirthless. She’s still the best thing in this thing, but this thing is nothing.

The plot: Someone is killing off the puppets featured in a 1980s “Muppet Show”-type TV program. Like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” the story is film noir alternating between two LA caste systems. Like “Team America: World Police,” stridency and crassness is all.

The human cast includes Elizabeth Banks (as the onetime “Happytime” host turned stripper) and Joel McHale (as a jerk of an FBI agent). Detective Philips is voiced rather well by Bill Barretta, all world-weary cynicism and sardonic chuckles. Philips, we learn, was the first puppet on the LAPD force before a fatal mistake disgraced his name and made an enemy of his partner, a generic blowhard portrayed by McCarthy. They’re reteamed, uneasily, once the serial killings of the “Happytime” puppets commence.

So many fails: The shredded, detached limbs and skull-exploding shotgun blasts may involve puppets, not humans, but director Henson can’t figure out a way to stylize the violence. The location work and set-ups are as drab as they come. The world-building includes an underground puppet lair where addicts take turns snorting cocaine-like sugar. The general atmosphere is one of casual sadism and gross-out humor. At one point a whip-wielding Dalmatian forces a bondage-loving firefighter into some uncomfortable role-play.

I sort of hated the last full-on Muppet movie, “Muppets Most Wanted.” Comic misjudgments are relative, though. This Muppet-un-affiliated fiasco is something — or rather, nothing — else entirely.


Zero stars (out of four)

MPAA rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)

Running time: 1:31