There’s a fairly early scene in The Happytime Murders that sets the twisted tone for what’s to follow. It takes place in a seedy area of Los Angeles in an even seedier sex shop where we witness -- through a pulled back curtain into a darkened back room -- an octopus violently stimulating a cow’s udder as milk sprays all over the place. The film is rated “R,” so we know what we’re getting into, right? In actuality, we have no idea. That’s not because of the graphic violence, harsh language, or even the explicit sexuality, but rather, due to the fact that the film really doesn’t even know what it is getting itself into.
One minute we’re watching a man having passionate, aggressive sex with a woman as he begins violently shooting white silly string into the air, then, the next minute we’re trying to gather ourselves and reconcile the film’s gallant themes that take on bigotry, domestic violence, and racial inequality. Oh, did I mention that the cow, octopus, and the copulating couple are puppets? Yes, actual furry puppets.
The film’s main conceit is that humans and puppets populate the same world. But they don’t necessarily get along with each other. You see, the puppets are looked down upon and treated as second-class citizens, enduring discrimination and violence as they try to make their way through the world.
That’s the part of the story writer Todd Berger hopes is strong enough to support his incessant barrage of puppet jokes and vulgar sight gags. Unfortunately it isn’t. The jokes are indeed funny. I mean really funny, and you’ll laugh. A lot. In fact, it's a done deal that we are all going to hell for the things we laugh at here. There’s something deliciously unsettling about seeing someone punch a puppet in the face, or hearing a puppet rattle off a string of F-bombs while giving someone the middle finger. But the comedy quickly outstays its welcome and the shallow plot never offers enough to counter.
You won’t actually see Grover doing drugs, Big Bird flipping the bird, or Miss Piggy and Kermit having sex (or any of the real Sesame Street Muppets for that matter), but if you view through squinted eyes, you will see the next closest thing as the puppets are constructed with the utmost care by Brian Henson (son of legendary Muppet creator Jim Henson) and his team of creative animators over at Henson Alternative.
Their story is set in Los Angeles and centers on the contentious relationship between a pair of estranged cops, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) a brash veteran of the force, and Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta), her one-time partner but since retired and now working as a Private Eye. Connie has a wicked habit for sweets while Phil keeps a flask of bourbon in his desk drawer and a floozy always at the ready.
When the cast members of a once-popular puppet sit-com called The Happytime Gang begin turning up dead, Phil and Connie are paired once again to help bring the perp to justice before the entire cast turns up burned, maimed, decapitated, or worse. What follows is just a loosely tied-together series of raunchy one-liners and vulgar skits including a re-creation of the famous Basic Instinct leg-crossing scene… from a purple-haired puppet. Hey, you were warned and it is rated “R.”
From a technical standpoint, The Happytime Murders is an aspiring puppeteer’s wet dream. The felt characters are beautifully imagined and seamlessly integrated into the human world they inhabit. We totally buy in to the world of duality they are selling. But the film is billed as a noir, and while it does incorporate many of the genre’s story elements, they just didn’t get the look and feel right. It is simply too brightly lit and perfectly polished to totally fit the feel they were going for.
To its credit though, the film always stays committed to its premise and takes a worthy stab at social relevance with all the things it has to say about the state of race relations in our country today. The filmmakers -- including Brian Henson who directs -- know that a bunch of puppets doing vile vulgar things can only work for so long, so the backstory is a much-appreciated attempt to stretch 15-minute’s-worth of material into feature-length runtime. But at nearly 90 minutes, the gag gets old long before the credits roll.
Speaking of credits, there’s a series of mid-credit outtakes and bloopers that is nearly as much fun as anything that made the final cut. We see the puppeteers working on green screen, flubbing lines, and joking around on the set. Great to see that everyone had such a good time on set. It’s just a shame that we grow tired of the gag before they do.
(Released by STX Entertainment and rated “R” for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.