Film Review – The Happytime Murders (2018)

Sometimes it’s all too easy to understand how a movie gets green lit.  The phrase “an adult Muppet movie” must have figured somewhere in the pitch for The Happytime Murders and any self-respecting fly on the wall would have been, dare we say it, buzzing at the idea.  And who wouldn’t?  A murder mystery with a puppet private eye at its centre, set in a Los Angeles where humans live alongside an underclass of Jim Henson style creations.  Throw in as many noir tropes as you can think of – if they’re Philip Marlowe related, so much the better – and put Brian Henson (Jim’s son) in charge and it can’t fail, can it?  Actually, yes, it can.

Private investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is investigating a blackmail case when he walks into a murder scene.  The victim is another puppet and the next one is his own brother, actor Larry Shenanigans (Victor Yerrid).  The two have something in common: both starred in a popular TV show from the 80s, The Happytime Gang, which means the rest of the cast are under threat as well.  But Phil doesn’t have things all his own way.  Previously the LAPD’s first puppet cop, he left under a shadow and now he has to work with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the case.  And the two don’t get along.

It gets off to a decent start.  Phil is the Chandleresque narrator, there’s some smile-worthy gags and the puppets are definitely appealing.  In fact, they’re the film’s biggest plus point, brought to life in true Henson tradition.  But it doesn’t take long for the story to run out of steam and descend into crassness, clichés and – crucially for a comedy – an almost total lack of laughs.  Nearly all of the attempts at verbal humour pass by unnoticed and there’s just one, solitary genuinely funny sequence; yes, it’s rude but the opportunity to laugh comes as a welcome relief.

Melissa McCarthy is stuck in a rut of shrieking, taking part in some of the more adult shenanigans – for drugs read sugar – and being on the receiving end of continuous jibes about looking like a man.  And the reason for what ends up as a disappointing mess is the script, which seems hell bent on using the puppets purely for comedy and nothing else.  Worse still, it tantalises some potential themes like class, racism and sexism but leaves them dangling in an offensive limbo.

The result is a tick-box affair, which is just about redeemed by the way the Henson crew bring the puppets and their world to life.  Compared to that, the human characters come off second best, although there’s a little gem of a performance from Maya Rudolph as Bubbles, Phil’s ever-adoring secretary.  True, it’s another noir convention but, despite the script, she carries it off with a level of conviction and wit that merits a much better film.  As it stands, she’s left stranded.

The Happytime Murders doesn’t deliver anything especially new, despite the initial appeal of puppets rubbing shoulders with people.  Nor, despite its puppetry skills, does it live up to the heritage that goes with the Henson name.  As a comedy, it falls flat on its face early on and never manages to get up.  A happy time is not had by all.

Freda Cooper | [rating=1]


Comedy, Action | 15 | UK, 27 August (2018) | STX | Dir. Brian Henson| Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph ,Leslie David Baker.