Let me say off the bat that I have zero problem per se with smutty puppets. There’s a place in the firmament for Avenue Q (though it’s already dated) and the South Park guys’ Team America: World Police, in which puppets suck and f—. (I am using hyphens in case there are children reading this.) And the idea of Jim Henson’s son appropriating the Sesame Street aesthetic for a nihilistic blood- (or stuffing-) bath rich in F-words and ejaculatory (literally) gags is, on an Oedipal level, tantalizing. But The Happytime Murders turns out to be a stupefyingly sh—y puppet movie.
The setup is a racial allegory in which the sentient puppets are regarded as inferior. “It’s not a crime to be warm and fuzzy,” says the puppet private-investigator narrator, Phil Phillips, as he watches children pull an eye off a puppet hobo, “but it might as well be.” He was once the LAPD’s lone puppet officer, until a puppet crook took his human partner hostage and Phil’s bullet went tragically astray. Now it’s thought that puppet cops won’t shoot other puppets. And that former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), is Phil’s worst enemy.
Of course the movie reunites them to solve the murders of members of the cast of Happytime, an ’80s kids’ show with six zany puppets and one human blonde named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). Lyle, the rabbit puppet who played “Bumblypants,” is the first to go in a porn-shop massacre — the event itself far less traumatizing than the fact that it’s ex-Elmo Kevin Clash voicing the porn-sniffing Bumblypants. Is this his revenge on Sesame Street for having to resign over (still unproven) charges of improper sexual conduct? Funny like a boil.
The three humiliating running gags about McCarthy’s Detective Edwards are that (a) she has a puppet liver, (b) she has a jones for sugar, and (c) she looks like a man. She doesn’t look remotely like a man, but those are the words of the other characters, human and puppet, to which she responds with variations of “F— you,” snorts puppet coke, and punches puppets out. Under the circumstances, I don’t have the heart to say a bad word about McCarthy. You can sense when an actor’s peripheral vision includes the nearest EXIT sign: Does she swallow hard and keep going or make a run for it, saving her soul but ensuring she’ll be blackballed? McCarthy made one choice, Michael Cohen the other.
The old-fashioned puppet work is excellent, as you’d expect, and Bill Barretta is crisper and funnier than you’d expect as the voice of the gumshoe, Phil. Dorien Davies hits some giddy notes as Sandra, the bombshell puppet with “I’m-a” sexuality: “If I’m-a get next to it I’m-a gonna f— it.” Her tryst with Phil is … unforgettable and staged with real verve. But comedies this broad come down to percentage games and (in what has become a ritual for me, alas), I estimate less than 10 percent of screenwriter Todd Berger’s jokes land. The rest elicit silence or winces, like Michael Cohen’s plaid jacket.
There is some wit in director Brian Henson’s use of various noir tropes, and I was impressed by the mood of despair he creates around puppets cast adrift. Growing up with Sesame Street, he must have seen the characters we loved gone limp, deflated, and perhaps he remembered the actors whose bond with children left them typecast, unable to work outside the small world of kids’ TV. In The Happytime Murders, Banks’s Jenny is a pole dancer, while the puppets are criminals, addicts, bums, or, in one case, incestuously married, producing a simpleton puppet girl with three eyes and boy with one. (That joke worked for me because they’re deformed puppets, not actual children. But I wouldn’t think less of you for being appalled.)
It would have been livelier — for contrast, if nothing else — if some of the puppets had risen to great financial heights in, say, real estate.
(Despite global warming, earthquakes, drought, flooding, and fire, California property is in its own sphere.) Or one puppet could have been a family-values politician coasting on the show’s family-values reputation. Anything to relieve the monotony. More than ever, people go to movies to see what other people are talking about, while late August duds like The Happytime Murders make you vaguely embarrassed to be in the theater. Even if you went to the multiplex to see it, you’ll still feel as if you’re only there because you couldn’t get into the movie next door.
This might be the world’s luckiest film, though, the way Republican congressman Duncan Hunter is the world’s luckiest man. That’s what Rachel Maddow called Hunter on August 21, when his fraud indictment would have dominated the news but for Paul Manafort’s conviction on eight felony counts and Trump consigliere Michael Cohen’s guilty plea to eight more, while also claiming Trump directed him to pay off two women before the election (and hinting Trump knew about the Russian DNC hack in advance). Then National Enquirer honcho David Pecker rolled on Trump and the HuffPost screamed, “TRUMP LOSES PECKER.” How can a comedy compete? Any other August we’d be abuzz about The Happytime Murders. Now it’s too lame for infamy.