May 8, 2019
The Happytime Murders (2018)
In 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit didn’t just revolutionize animation with its seamless insertion of wacky cartoon animation into a majority of its live-action shots; it subtly satirized Hollywood’s own history through a hard-boiled noir plot with a novel premise: What if cartoon characters were as real as the flesh-and-blood actors of live-action movies? Furthermore, what if these characters were treated like black performers in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, and valued only for their entertainment skills and otherwise segregated from human society?
The next year, a young Kiwi nerd with a passion for B-movie schlock and Ray Harryhausen monster movies released his sophomore feature Meet the Feebles, a behind-the-scenes Muppet Show parody featuring, among other things, an obese hippo with an eating disorder, a heroin-addicted frog, a horny hyper-sexual rabbit who thinks he’s dying of AIDS, and a fox who sings a whole number about how much he loves sodomy. It was a flop, but that nerd did go on to make something about wizards and monsters looking for jewelry that did okay.
What do these two movies have in common? Stylistically, absolutely nothing. Plot-wise and thematically, not much aside from both being showbiz satires. But both function on a similar basis of taking an entertainment form culturally associated with childhood innocence and clearly separated from everyday realism, and tearing down these barriers to make the characters reflect our society and our flaws in more extreme ways. Done right, as it is with Roger Rabbit (as far as the PG rating can allow, anyway) and the first half of Meet the Feebles before the joke gets old, you get comedy that’s transgressive, funny, and maybe even insightful. Done wrong, you get The Happytime Murders.
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On paper, it certainly sounded like a good idea: An R-rated buddy cop comedy set in a Muppets-like world with sex, drugs, and swearing, and directed by none other than Jim Henson’s own son Brian. But upon watching the film’s marketing, it became apparent that it was counting really hard on the “dirty jokes involving puppets” angle and seemingly not much else. Nevertheless, I remained cautiously optimistic going in, confident that there was something more to the story that the trailers and posters had omitted.
More fool me.
The film opens with disgraced puppet cop-turned-private investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) accepting a job from attractive puppet client Sandra White (Dorien Davies), who says she’s being blackmailed. Recognizing a cut-out “P” used in the letter as coming from a puppet porn mag, Phil visits a local sex shop (which also doubles as an amateur porn studio) to investigate. While he’s checking out the store’s records, a mysterious gunman bursts in and kills everyone else in the store, including a puppet rabbit customer that turns out to be Bumblypants (Kevin Clash), a cast member from the old ’90s puppet sitcom The Happytime Gang.
The police are brought on the scene, including Phil’s former friend and partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). As we eventually learn in flashback, their partnership ended when Connie got taken hostage by a puppet criminal and Phil missed when he took a shot, accidentally killing some other puppet who was taking a walk with his daughter, thus giving the criminal time to shoot Connie. The subsequent investigation, during which Connie testified against Phil, led to his firing from the LAPD and the establishment of a local law banning puppets from joining law enforcement.
Predictably, the reunion doesn’t go too well and the two bicker for a bit before Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker) tells them to cut it out. Since the attacker didn’t take any money, Phil guesses this was a hit against Bumblypants, but Connie isn’t convinced. Later that night, Phil’s successful brother Larry (Victor Yerrid), another Happytime cast member, is enjoying himself in a hot tub with his girlfriend Brittenie (Cynthy Wu) when an unknown attacker releases dogs through his front door flap who proceed to tear him to shreds. This, of course, forces Phil to work together with Connie once more to find the killer. Because The Happytime Gang is about to go into syndication, the two pay a visit to Puppet Television Network’s racist human CEO Ronovan Scargle (Michael McDonald) from whom they steal the syndication contract, which says all royalties will go to cast members’ surviving families.
Guessing the killer must be a former cast member, the pair pay a visit to Happytimer-turned-drug dealer Lyle (Kevin Clash), who gets killed in a drive-by shooting before Phil’s eyes. By this point, the murders have caught the attention of the FBI, represented by Special Agent Campbell (Joel McHale), and it’s clear the killer is trying to frame Phil. Evading the FBI after a wild office tryst with his original client Sandra, Phil sneaks into a puppet strip club to visit his old flame Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), Happytime’s only human cast member, only for her to get blown up in a car bomb just as the police arrive.
This naturally cements Phil as the prime suspect, so he flees and hides out at Connie’s apartment. Connie, in the meantime, has been questioning fellow Happytime cast member Goofer (Drew Massey) at a homeless sugar den (in this movie, puppets snort sugar instead of coke). Amidst rambling semi-conscious nonsense, he drops a clue about a married couple before he passes out. When Connie returns to find Phil in her apartment, the two figure out he was referring to fellow castmates Ezra and Cara, a couple of first cousins who got married and had kids after the show ended and now run a restaurant outside the city. Later that morning, Goofer’s body washes up under a pier, dead of a suspected drug overdose.
With Ezra and Cara as the only suspects left, Phil and Connie drive to their place, only to find them murdered in their bed. They realize the murderer is still in the house and try to apprehend the suspect, only for the police to arrive and arrest them instead. At police headquarters, Phil sees Sandra in an interrogation room revealing that she was Jenny’s wife, and claiming that Phil killed her and the others out of jealousy and greed. Despite their protests, Phil is jailed pending trial, and Connie is suspended from the force.
Connie goes home to find Phil’s amorous secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) there offering to team up with her to prove Phil’s innocence. The two go to Sandra’s home where they discover a hidden Room Full of Crazy with newspaper cuttings, Happytime cast member photos, as well as a photo of Phil with words like “kill” and “revenge” written around it. Also prominently featured is a photo of Jasper Jakoby, the puppet Phil accidentally killed when he missed the thug holding Connie hostage… revealing that Sandra is in fact his daughter, all grown up and seeking revenge. Bubbles finds a recording of Sandra’s voice confirming this, but the tape also activates a self-destruct mechanism that burns all the evidence.
Knowing Sandra is likely about to flee the country, Connie breaks Phil out of jail and the two set out to stop her at the airport, where she’s about to board a private jet with all the royalty money. Phil confronts her and tries to apologize for killing her father, but Sandra tells him she’s moved beyond that, and has now developed a taste for murder because she’s so good at it. Jenny then shows up, alive and well, revealing herself as an accomplice, only for Sandra to knock her out and try to get away on the plane. Connie runs after her but once again gets taken hostage and held at gunpoint. Phil, of course, seizes his chance for redemption and shoots, this time hitting his target square in the head, killing her and saving Connie. Police arrive on the scene, Phil gets reinstated as an officer (with a throwaway line about the city working on scrapping the anti-puppet law), and he asks Bubbles out on a date.
I don’t know how the creative process that led to The Happytime Murders went, but it was clear from the first ten minutes or so that it suffered from too much thought being put into world-building and not enough into plot, theme, character arcs, and jokes. The setting borrows heavily from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the screenplay spends a lot of time outlining how oppressed and despised puppets are, with random street harassment, comments about how they’re only good for singing and dancing, and Jim Crow-like segregation laws. There’s even a big deal made out of how Phil’s brother Larry maintains some measure of success by bleaching his skin pale and getting surgery done on his nose to make it look more human.
As you’ve probably gathered from just that last sentence alone, the racism metaphor is pretty heavy-handed, but it’s ultimately shallow. Roger Rabbit’s commentary worked partly because of its 1940s setting, which echoed widespread laws, practices, and attitudes from that time, and partly because it showed racism as a commonly accepted part of everyday life that goes largely unquestioned. The Happytime Murders, by contrast, is set in modern days, which makes the entire segregation system feel completely anachronistic. Systemic racism today works in much more complex and subtle ways that aren’t as immediately obvious in their evil as laws banning people of certain groups from serving in the police force. Most damning of all, none of that ultimately matters; unlike in Roger Rabbit, where Judge Doom’s genocidal plan hinged on the fact that nobody was going to care about a whole toon neighborhood being destroyed, racism is just a very loud and obvious setting quirk about which the writers have nothing substantial to say.
The racism metaphor’s clunkiness would probably have been a lot more bearable if the characters were memorable enough. Sadly, they’re mostly a collection of buddy cop and noir stock characters that never quite feel like they belong together. This could have potentially worked to interesting effect if the puppet characters ended up feeling more “real” and alive than the humans, but even the puppets are fairly boring despite some occasionally neat designs, like the sex shop-owning vulture whose head looks like a human scrotum with a beak implant. Only Bill Barretta’s Phil feels like a fully-fledged character, thanks to a gruff burnt-out vocal delivery that perfectly skirts the line between straightforwardness and knowing parody.
As for the much-publicized raunchiness, there’s some amusing stuff in the sex shop, including a porno featuring an octopus milking a cow and a grainy S&M porno with a human and a dog dominatrix (a doginatrix, if you will), but most of this is out of the way in the first 15 minutes and the rest feels surprisingly timid and restrained, like the makers only wanted to pay lip service to internet-inspired Muppet jokes without going all in on it Team America-style.
Much of this can be blamed on Brian Henson’s limp direction. It’s his first feature since 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island, and it shows: everything is filmed like an extended Comedy Central sketch without much thought given to space or blocking. He barely takes advantage of his puppets’ physicality or how out of proportion they are to their environments and fellow actors. There’s a brawl scene between Melissa McCarthy and puppet thugs that should be hilarious to watch, but is rendered completely inert by fast cuts and a lack of frame variety. The funniest scene is easily the sex scene between Phil and Sandra spoiled in all the trailers, but even that gets ruined by repeated cuts to outside the office for reaction shots.
As for Melissa McCarthy, she’s sadly on full autopilot here, mailing in yet another variation of her angry potty-mouth hard-ass persona in a performance that feels like someone cobbled together rehearsal takes from The Heat. There’s an attempt at giving her character more depth by giving her a transplanted puppet liver, which makes her resistant to diabetes but also gives her an addiction to sugar and an identity crisis, but that quickly gets brushed aside to get the plot moving.
This is pretty symptomatic of how the overall film feels: half-assed, both in tone and execution. It plays less like a finished film and more like a collection of semi-formed ideas from a first draft that were rushed into production without being given time to coalesce. It’s especially jarring considering the movie has apparently been gestating for ten years, having gone through multiple rewrites, two distributors, and three potential stars (Cameron Diaz, Katherine Heigl, and Jamie Foxx were each set to play Connie at different points) before Melissa McCarthy finally got hold of it. If, during that time, someone had realized that the concept would probably work better as a TV comedy series, we might have gotten something that was at least at home in its environment instead of a glorified TV pilot in search of a laugh track.