Despite drawing inspiration from Sesame Street and The Muppets, we still see the puppets committing outrageous acts like curse, drink alcohol and have sex. Lauded by critics who stated it was “breakthrough” and “an ingenious combination of ‘The Real World’ and Sesame Street,” Avenue Q brought down the house in 2003 on Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical. It’s hard not to go into The Happytime Murders and think, ‘Avenue Q did it’ but alas, it happened frequently. While The Happytime Murders does have puppets being murdered, it reeks of lazy comic writing.
The Happytime Murders is about a disgraced, former cop puppet Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) who is tasked in finding a blackmailer by puppet Sandra (Dorien Davies). While investigating, he discovers that a mysterious figure is murdering the cast members of an old tv show, The Happytime Gang. He must team up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to save the rest of the cast, including his former love (Elizabeth Banks). But can he put aside the bitter feelings of his past and the discrimination that puppets face?
In Avenue Q, the puppeteers were always in plain sight and made no effort to conceal themselves or their mouths as they spoke and sang. (You also never saw the puppets explode in a ball of fluff). This is not the case in The Happytime Murders where there are no puppeteers and the puppets live as separated creatures with legs, no longer needing a human master. During the credits, you see behind the curtain as puppeteers, in green bodysuits, work to have the puppets as realistic as possible. It’s quite amazing and a reminder that puppeteering is harder than it looks. It’s not 100% perfect, as a shot of Phillips stomping on a man’s genitals is blended with CGI but it’s evident that hard work was spent to give us a puppet/human hybrid movie.
It’s a shame because the script (and overall movie) suffers due to either bad or lazy writing. At one point, McCarthy argues with FBI agent Cambell (Joel McHale, who is criminally underused). They exchange heated words and eventually devolves into McCarthy cracking a slew of “____ says what?” jokes. That joke is amateur at best and it’s repeated several times throughout the film. The audience at a Thursday showing at 10 pm (with 8 people!) echoed in silence. Comedies are best seen in a crowded theater (like Sausage Party or Pineapple Express) but I feel that moviegoers will not be fighting to see this R-rated comedy. Without Seth Rogen (or any of the other members of Team Apatow), you lose the male demographic and Melissa McCarthy’s stock has been dropping due to her lackluster films in recent memory (her last film, Life of the Party had “the lowest solo-starring opening of McCarthy’s career.”) It’s a shame because I love vulgar movies (if they’re done right) and the idea of mixing humans and a non-human species (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Avenue Q) is a great concept that can lend itself to finely-crafted bits. The Happytime Murders does provide some laughs but most of the jokes miss the target and the screenwriter (Todd Berger) adds a ‘f***’ here and a ‘Jesus Christ’ there to fill in the pauses.
At 91 minutes, The Happytime Murders starts to drag near the end which is a horrible indication for a comedy film. The editing is fine enough but is notoriously bad in the beginning when Philips is being interrogated. McCarthy yells and ad-libs her way through the movie. This is only the second movie I’ve seen with McCarthy (the first being Bridesmaids) but I’m finding her schtick stale. Screaming can give comedy a nice punch but it’s becoming a tired routine. It’s the reason I found Will Ferrell annoying and tiresome by Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby. However, I am interested in McCarthy’s turn to drama in the upcoming Can You Ever Forgive Me?
In the end, the responsible party is arrested, lives are saved and The Happytime Murders concludes with well, a happy time. The script is riddled with problems (and corpses are riddled with bullets) and The Happytime Murders is a wasted opportunity in terms of concept and execution. It’s a shame because it’s directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson who found little to risk using puppetry. But don’t worry because the ending joke is… another repetition of “idiot says what?” Those who leave the theater might find out the answer to that question.