The Happytime Murders wants to shock us with its Muppet-style puppets who curse, patronize porn shops, snort drugs, and jizz silly string, but the only truly shocking thing is just how inept the movie is. This is the kind of movie where a character whispers to someone a few feet away so that the person standing directly next to her doesn’t hear her (he doesn’t). This is the kind of movie that asks you to root for a P.I. who allows multiple sentient beings (of both flesh and plush varieties) to walk right into their deaths during his investigations. This is the kind of movie where we hear that an event happened 20 years ago, and then mere minutes later, that it happened 12 years ago with no accounting for the discrepancy. This is the kind of movie that kills a character in a fire and then brings her back during the climax, again with no explanation. The Happytime Murders wants us to delight in how grown-up these puppets are while treating viewers like they’re children. Or not even—Jim Henson’s work never insulted its audience’s intelligence. The Happytime Murders is one, big, 90-minute insult.
At their most charming, the Muppets communicated on multiple frequencies. They were cuddly and emotionally transparent enough to be loved by kids, sardonic and referential enough to be enjoyed by their parents (you see the same sort of winking to the elders in Pixar’s sensibility). While novel in the bleak landscape of contemporary comedies with wide distribution, The Happytime Murders’ conceit of breaking similar puppets out of the constraints of children’s programming is not new. It’s been done and then done again. The Muppets, ABC’s single-camera-style look at the flawed characters and interior lives of Jim Henson’s beloved creations, did that for a dwindling audience over the course of 16 episodes in the 2015-16 season. But Happytime is more in debt to Peter Jackson’s 1989 film Meet the Feebles, which probed the sex-, drugs-, and AIDS-filled offstage lives of a bunch of grotesque, Muppets-esque characters. As kaleidoscopic as a bad trip and as pleasant as scabies, Feebles nonetheless satirized the Muppets when they were still culturally relevant and in the process produced a nightmarish vibe that was all its own. It’s a hard movie to recommend, even harder to enjoy, but it is inarguably singular in its surreality.
The Happytime Murders, meanwhile, stuffs its deviant plush into a noirish procedural framework at a time when the Muppets’ cultural presence is virtually nonexistent (2011’s quite good The Muppets, and 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted feel like distant memories). It’s likely that for Happytime director Brian Henson, though, Muppets have never not been relevant—he’s Jim’s son and took over the Muppet movie franchise for a bit after his father died, directing 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island. Those, while not peak-Muppet, are canon, and never could have possibly predicted how The Happytime Murders would come to be so out of touch with what makes the Muppets great and pop culture worth commenting on at all. If you need proof, look no further than the scene that sends up Basic Instinct’s interrogation sequence. No amount of puppet labia can save that decades-old bit from staleness.
The Happytime Murders takes place in a world where puppets are second-class citizens—early shots in the movie lay on the race metaphors thick, as we a variety of felt configurations being harrassed by police and growled at by dogs. There’s no insight on institutional racism, no interest in exploring its absurdities in this ridiculous framework; it mostly just provides context for the shit-talking Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) does to her ex-puppet partner Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) when they reunite and start investigating a series of deaths of actors who worked on an old kids’ show, The Happytime Gang. For example, she comments that he used to be a lot bluer—“I don’t know if that’s P.C. to say... I can’t say ‘blue’?”—since they were partners (either 12 or 20 years ago, who knows), and he mutters that she’s racist under his breath. And that’s the joke. Todd Berger’s screenplay is chock full of barb-trading that is either nonsensical or unfunny, often both at the same time. Edwards makes a reference to David Copperfield, Philips asks, “What are you, Houdini now?” Edwards retorts, “Maybe I am Houdini.” Philips says, “I’d like to see you disappear.” It’s called witty banter, look it up.
McCarthy’s charcter isn’t a total bigot on the movie’s own terms, I guess, because she’s part puppet—she has a felt liver on account of an emergency surgery at a puppet hospital. How that worked, why only some puppets seem age, why Philips ejaculates so much silly string—none of it makes a lick of sense. Henson seems to have no grasp on the rules of the world he’s created, and thinks anarchy in the form of outrageousness is all it needs to get by. He squanders the considerable talent at hand, including McCarthy (whose addict-cop character is flatter and more trite than anything controlled by a hand up its butt) and Maya Rudolph, as the squeaky-voiced secretary Bubbles. Puppets are already already disconcerting to many people for being both humanlike and not quite human enough, but The Happytime Murders’ apparent failure to achieve just about everything it aspires to do makes for a grueling, multilevel tour of the uncanny valley. It ain’t pretty.