Before Melissa McCarthy’s involvement essentially fast-tracked The Happytime Murders into production, the dark comedy had languished in development limbo for the good part of decade with both Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl attached at various moments as potential headliners. With the final product now upon us, McCarthy’s penchant for vanity-free comedy feels like the most organic choice, and it’s her dedication to the lunacy around her that keeps the uneven tone of the film somewhat elevated due to her comic mastery.
Marking a distinct departure from his father Jim Henson’s work on beloved children’s programs The Muppets and Sesame Street, director Brian Henson commits (though not as completely as he should’ve) to the film’s hook that humans and puppets co-exist in the world, with the latter being relegated to second-class citizens. A seedy Los Angeles is our backdrop where the classic temperaments of the neo-noir serial killer thriller and the buddy-cop action/comedy fuse together as a series of brutal murders take place across the city, the victims being the ensemble cast of The Happytime Gang, a once-popular television series that broke the mold due to its puppet and human cast.
On hand to investigate the case is puppet private investigator Phil Phillips (voice actor and puppeteer Bill Barretta) and his former police partner Connie Edwards (McCarthy), the two on the outs with each other following a shoot-out that resulted in a puppet civilian being accidentally offed at the hands of Phillips. Sharing not just a professional history but something of a personal connection, Edwards begrudgingly owes her life to Phillips as he wheeled her to a puppet hospital following her own shoot-out injury which resulted in her needing a liver transplant; the puppet organ she received now means she has a serious sugar addiction (sugar is evidently like crack for puppets) where she chugs maple syrup by the glass and gleefully snorts sherbet-like candy.
Phil’s no-nonsense attitude and Connie’s unpredictable demeanour allows Todd Berger’s script to occasionally crack with crude brilliance but their banter never matches the spitfire material McCarthy has encountered before, namely the Sandra Bullock accompaniment The Heat and her secret agent take Spy. The actress does share alarmingly believable chemistry with her puppet co-star though, and the ironic notion that its the humans that walk away the stand-out performers in a film where the hook is watching puppets behaving badly continues with Leslie David Baker (TV’s The Office) as the deadpan police chief and the wonderful Maya Rudolph as Phil’s loyal secretary Bubbles, the actress injecting the character with equal parts humour and gentility.
That being said, The Happytime Murders does offer up its share of puppet-centric set-pieces, and whilst it’s evident these tasteless scenes have been developed in a manner to shock audiences – though fellow adult-aimed puppet comedy Team America: World Police managed that effect better – they still prove wildly amusing if you’re willing to lower your standards and succumb to the film’s smutty nature; a porn shop-set shoot-out preceded by the imagery of an octopus “milking” a cow, and an office dalliance between Phil and femme fatale archetype Sandra (Dorien Davies) that results in a copious amount of silly string being ejaculated across the office walls being the two prime examples of the film operating at its most bawdy potential.
No one will ever praise this film as a prime example of the comedy genre, and as much as you wish the cast and crew took the lunacy on screen that much further, it evokes enough chuckles throughout to not be deemed an entire misfire. It certainly threatens to wear out its welcome (and it’s already pushing the minimum length of a feature at only 80 minutes-or-so) but if vulgarity and unkempt comedy spikes your interest, you may find yourself laughing along at The Happytime Murders‘ depravity – even if it’s against your better judgement.
About The Happytime Murders
When the puppet cast of an ’80s children’s TV show begin to get murdered one by one, a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.
The Happytime Murders (MA15+) is screening in Australian cinemas from 23rd August 2018