The Happytime Murders tries too hard to be “cool”

Nutshell: I wasn’t expecting much here – I’m still smarting from McCarthy’s Life of the Party – so I was pleasantly surprised by a handful of genuinely good gags. Unfortunately, the film as a whole tries too hard to be comically edgy, and ends up falling flat. Grade: D+

“You look like a cloth vagina.”

Story: In an alternate reality LA, puppets and humans coexist. Well, kinda; puppets are definitely second class citizens in this scenario. But when puppets start getting murdered, puppet PI Phil Philips must team up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards, and find out who’s doing the puppets dirty. And speaking of dirty, cue the puppet jizz!

Genre I’d put it in: Puppet Movies That Try To Be Raunchy And End Up Meh

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the Jim Henson Muppets. His kid Brian directed this joint.

Gotta say: Did somebody watch Team America? Because it looks like somebody watched Team America and said “hold my beer”. Unfortunately, just like the YouTube fails that inevitably occur after that statement is uttered, Happytime doesn’t manage to live up to its great idea. Instead, you’re left leaving the theater just as you’d leave YouTube; with a smattering of laughs and some genuine guffaws, but a feeling you’ve been let down somehow.

Not that this idea didn’t have promise.  As with Who Framed Rodger Rabbit, humans coexist with cartoon characters, except this time they’re felt rather than ink.  And the prejudices flow just as readily here as in Toontown.  And just like Avenue Q, these puppets can be nasty.  Nasty y’all.  Expect puppet private parts, junkie puppets (they can become “Sugar Smacks” if they get hooked on the sugar they love so well.) Unlike Rodger and Q, Happytime doesn’t seem to know what to do once it’s geared itself to the grownups, so it just inserts random dirty bits into the story, hoping things’ll gel.  They never do.

As the story unfolds a group of puppets get picked off one by one, Phil goes full hardboiled, complete with seedy office, hardworking but overlooked secretary, and voiceover narration. It’s a good way to get the exposition out there, and the scenes where Phil is about town, checking out how puppets are getting on in the world (hint: not well) shed light on the movie this could have been. “Spare a penny?  My wife is dead!” “Lookin’ for some rotten cotton?” “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, gonna get fucked up…”– these lines are dark and perfect, but the story uses the characters that spout ’em as one-offs, never to be referenced again.  We’ve got to move on to more puppets!  Junkie puppets!  Puppet junk!  R rating!  Woohoo!  Well, no woo, and definitely no hoo.  I’ll give it a laugh here and there, max. Rather than the story we got – Phil trying to figure out whodunnit and why (it’s not hard to figure out) – a story about puppets becoming addicted and marginalized while still having “fluff inside” sounds incredible.  Oh well.

What’s to like? Well, as a Muppet fan I really dug all of the crazy “dirty” puppets. From the pr0n store vulture to the Russian poker hound and even the crazy octopus, it was fun seeing these typically straightlaced puppets look…well, human. And I mean that in the best lowbrow kinda way. But my favorite of the gang (and the newest addition to my list of favorite Muppets) is Lyle, a former TV star turned crime boss. He looks fantastic, both world weary, street smart and wise. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an awesome shade of purple. Hey, purple rules. And speaking of the vulture, his wares include such chucklers as “Puppet Pussy Party”, where puppet cats – in bikinis – are having a pillow fight.  Plus, a rabbit who gets busted in the shop freaks out and poops Easter eggs.  C’mon, that’s adorable.

As always, Maya Rudolph slays. As Phil’s upbeat secretary Bubbles, her deadpan as the weird and raunchy shenanigans happen is the reason to watch this movie. (Though I don’t think I’ll ever eat Fiddle Faddle again.) McCarthy does a more than serviceable job with what she was given to work with, and gets in a whole lot of Grade-A slapstick physical humor. Meanwhile, Joel McHale plays an FBI agent that only seems to serve as a reason for the film to say “hey! We’ve got Joel McHale! He’s cool!”  Keep your eyes peeled for McCarthy’s hubby Ben Falcone playing a cop in the station. That scene gets about five seconds of screen time, but got me to guffaw with happiness, and sure beat all the others that went on way too long.  Way.  Too. Long. (See: puppet jizz.)

The soundtrack here is a fun mix of 80s hits, from “Give it to Me Baby” and “I Touch Myself” to “That’s What Friends Are For” (which elicits the very best line in the entire movie) and “Stuck in the Middle with You”. Yeah, the music amps up the story, giving the proceedings a cooler, more interesting vibe. But you’re better off staying home and re-watching Team America. Or South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. For die-hard Muppet fans – and pre-teens who love the idea of dirty puppets – only.

#Protip: if you do decide to go, stay for the credits. There’s a fantastic behind the scenes video as the puppets sing “I Want Candy”. It’s easily the most fun you’ll have while watching this movie.

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