‘The Happytime Murders’ is a sad effort
Some films are released. Others escape. “The Happytime Murders” must have broken free from confinement in the Hollywood Asylum for Incurable Comedies, joining the late-summer crowd of getaway action embarrassments and unlovable romances.
This film noir parody full of faux-fur puppets is completely threadbare. It takes us to a present-day Los Angeles where humans and motion-captured Muppet-ish characters coexist, with unease in both camps. People often treat the sewn-together subgroup with chauvinist disdain and call them by the F word: Fuzzy.
They have little protection except for detective Phil Phillips (voice artist Bill Barretta), a blue-colored, hard-drinking ex-cop who narrates the story like Elmore Leonard with writer’s block. Even though he’s stuffed with fluff, Phil can throw a knockdown punch and stomp a human thug into mincemeat, as we are shown in a fight scene of surprising length. How this works when he stands 3 ½ feet tall and has the body mass of a pillow is one of 8,516 questions the movie never answers.
Here’s another: Why would he do business in a tiny office where a loyal secretary gazes at him with adoring eyes? Phil’s office assistant Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, bringing a congenial attitude to this hopeless undertaking) gives him the worshipful attention usually found in frescoes of the Madonna, which seems odd for a cross-species crush.
Phil’s big case comes from a furry little vixen (voiced by Dorien Davies) who couldn’t possibly be a manipulative femme fatale in disguise, could she? Please wait while I check every detective film ever made.
She sends him to investigate a blackmail letter that leads him to a scene where a murder is committed behind his back. Phil becomes the prime suspect among some former LAPD colleagues, including his ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).
The victim was a puppet who co-starred with Phil’s brother on a popular TV show of yesteryear, and as the other cast members are offed in succession, their fluff stuffing cascades down like a snow flurry.
The point of diminishing returns is reached about 15 minutes in. Unlike other human/pretend hybrids like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or “Ted,” this movie overplays the novelty and surprise of its gimmick far too early.
Most of the creations here lack the googly-eyed innocence of their processors, and it’s established from the outset that we shouldn’t expect them to be on good behavior. The first unexpected sex scene between a puppet cow and octopus works on sheer shock value. Following that by introducing puppet hookers, nymphos, addicts and peep show creeps spewing torrents of the human F word rapidly wears out its welcome.
The same goes for the film’s nearly nonstop violence. A tug of war that some dogs play with a living puppet they treat like a stuffed toy gives “Happytown” a sense of absurdity. But as old-school gunshots push the stuffed body count to the dozens, the mood wears off.
From the start, director Brian Henson (Muppet maestro Jim Henson’s son, who hasn’t made a feature film since 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island”) aggressively pushes the envelope of the R rating, firing off a deluge of dialogue, action and imagery that is intended to be funny because it’s gross. For comparison, Seth Rogen’s bizarre adult animation “Sausage Party” worked because it delivered a kind of nimble outrageousness, several cuts above this film’s C-minus grade-school vulgarity.
No film starring McCarthy is entirely without laughs, and there are moments here. Still, even at a trim 80 minutes, it feels overlong. This dispiriting effort is Henson’s first entry of his new division’s adult productions, Henson Alternative. So much for beginner’s luck.
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