Entertainment

'The Happytime Murders' Is a Dumb, Dirty Puppet Movie That Completely Blows

happytime
STX Productions

The day after I went to see The Happytime Murders, the new puppet mystery starring Melissa McCarthy, a colleague asked me what the worst part of it was. I struggled for a moment. Not because there weren't bad parts, but because the entire movie is full of them. Should I say the cutaway puppet-porno gag involving what I think were tentacles and a cow? Or the Basic Instinct homage involving a puppet with purple puppet pubes? What about the movie's entire plot being a very misguided racism analogy built around the idea that puppets are being persecuted and that some of them, to appear less puppet-y, bleach their blue felt? Or maybe it's that it features an honest-to-goodness "asshole says what?" joke in this movie being released in 2018?

So, yeah, The Happytime Murders is bad. Directed by Brian Henson -- son of Muppets legend Jim -- it's a pseudo-noir about a private investigator named Phil Philips (voiced by Muppets vet Bill Barretta). The incredibly lazy conceit is that in this version of Los Angeles puppets and humans coexist, but the puppets are considered lesser than their human counterparts. Phil used to be a cop until he became the reason that puppets were banned from that job because he accidentally killed an innocent bystander, a detail that, despite involving puppets, is about as grim as you'd expect. Anyway, the cast members of a TV show called The Happytime Gang -- including Phil's brother -- are getting murdered and Phil is on the case with his human ex-partner Connie (Melissa McCarthy).

happytime
STX Productions

The Happytime Murders seems to think it has stumbled upon the revelation that it's funny when puppets swear and/or have sex. But that schtick has been done before and better in the likes of Team America: World Police and Broadway's Avenue Q. In fact, it's my memory of those projects -- as well as the similarly themed classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -- made me vaguely intrigued about this riff on the genre and willing to go in with the mindset that this wouldn't be a total disaster. Alas, what I found is utterly devoid of ingenuity. It's hard to imagine there was any more to the conceit than: "Wouldn't it be funny if a puppet jizzed a ton of silly string?" And the issue isn't that it's a gross idea. Gross can be funny. It's that the grossness is hollow.

The screenplay is full of queasy stereotypes -- including a trip to the "stuffing ghetto" -- and canned lines like, "I love you, but sometimes you can be a real asshole." And, as I mentioned, it blatantly steals Wayne's World's "a sphincter says what?" routine. The worst part is that the gag here is supposed to be on the "asshole" saying "what," not the idiots who think the prank is actually funny. It really says all you need to know about what's going on here.

McCarthy -- usually so exuberant on screen -- gives a phoned-in performance that waters down the work she did in a movie like The Heat. She's a tough cop with a puppet liver -- don't ask -- who is addicted to sugar. (Sugar, you see, is how puppets get high. Why? Who knows!) Even her usually impressive knack for physical comedy and her ability to wield a cutting insult seem tired. The only actor doing anything of note is Maya Rudolph, affecting a squeaky voice as Phil's pinup secretary. There's one brief moment where McCarthy and Rudolph are interacting -- free from any puppet nonsense -- and their innate brilliance emerges. I genuinely giggled. These two women deserve so much better.

Earlier this summer, Sesame Streettried to sue the production over its tagline: "No sesame. All street." The venerated show had nothing to worry about. Too shitty to be genuinely offensive, The Happytime Murders is as limp as a puppet without a puppeteer.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.