Everything I saw before going in to see The Happytime Murders prepared me for one of the worst films of the year. It’s not one of the worst, but no means does that mean it’s good. Brian Henson’s passion project is a deeply frustrating, flawed, and disgustingly misogynistic.
Henson’s fatal flaw is that for all of its crude and vulgar humor, Happytime Murders doesn’t go far enough. The broad strokes of what Henson is going for is painfully obvious. The amount of time you can feel how close he comes to pulling it all off is maddening.
It’s easy to want to compare Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with The Happytime Murders. Both take artforms popularly associated with childish entertainment and push the boundaries of what was previously thought capable and acceptable for the art form. Henson has a clear and encyclopedic love for classic film noir movies and the myriad of tropes that accompany them.
Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a puppet, is an ex-cop turned private eye. Cynical, pessimistic, and a habitual smoker he is a blue felt caricature of the classic Humphrey Bogart characters. His secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), a human, is the forthright and loyal companion. His ex-partner on the force, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), also a human, is the feminine version of Phil.
Typical of the film noir story structure, mysteries run parallel with each other until colliding at the end revealing that byzantine web our hungover hero has hopelessly stumbled into. Sandra (Doreen Davies), a wealthy puppet, hires Phil to help her. She’s being blackmailed for her voracious sexual appetite. Meanwhile, someone seems to be murdering the ex-members of a long-running popular children’s show The Happytime Gang.
Todd Berger wrote the script for The Happytime Murders and on paper, it sounds intriguing. The problem is in Henson’s and Berger’s execution. It is often said the devil is in the details; a philosophy The Happytime Murders ignores entirely. Henson’s script is all broad strokes. It lacks nuance or tiny little details that give the universe of The Happytime Murders any kind of real life.
We’re never really shown what, exactly The Happytime Gang was about or even why it was such a cultural zeitgeist. When Phil has lunch with his brother Larry Shenanigans (Victor Yerrid), a fan comes up and gushes over him. Berger does give us a glimpse into the past of both Phil and Larry. But the relationship takes a backseat for The Happytime Murders sledgehammer metaphor for racism by way of using puppets as stand-ins for people of color.
The metaphor is faulty because at its core it misunderstands the notion of racism or prejudice. Othering is when a subset of a society is viewed as inhuman or less than. The problem with the metaphor is that it takes the notion of racism and makes it valid by not making the othered subset human in the first place. Its argument is muddled because it’s premise is exactly the opposite of what marginalized people are saying. They are not trying to argue they should be treated fairly and equally because they are “not” human. They ARE human.
Using inanimate objects to dissect the act of othering in modern society is an age-old trope. But The Happytime Murders uses it clumsily and inartfully. Phil chastising Larry for bleaching his felt to make himself look lighter is an interesting comment on colorism. But it feels hollow in the hands of white storytellers. It lacks the aura of truly understanding colorism. Instead, it comes off as hollow epithets.
Even the story is haphazard. Noirs, or mysteries, don’t always have to make logical sense. Depending on the storyteller the journey could be the point of the mystery, not the solution. Other times it’s all about audience participation and laying the clues out in such a way that the ending, even if you didn’t get there, feels earned because it’s been meticulously laid out. The Happytime Murders lurches from scene to scene with no real sense of direction.
Connie and Phil’s relationship, for example, is fraught with bitterness, disappointment, and distrust. Henson and Berger use the trope of “the tragic missed shot” to explain Phil’s cynicism. “The tragic missed shot” trope is a tired and often hackneyed staple of the genre. Say you have character A, usually a crack shot. Now put them in a situation where character A missed the target with either fatal or tragic consequences. Character B oftentimes is either the hostage or the collateral damage.
Phil and Connie were partners back when he was on the force. Connie was taken hostage by a drugged out puppet, and Phil missed the shot. Throughout the entire first act, Connie never fails to remind Phil of his missed shot. But eventually we get a flashback and we see what really happened. Phil missed the puppet but killed an innocent puppet bystander.
Connie’s barbs focusing on Phil’s missed shot instead of the innocent life he took is supposed to be indicative of the prejudice she has for puppets. Except for the way the dialogue is worded her comments feel forced. The dialogue fails to underlie the prejudice and instead highlight the haphazard structure. Even worse is when Connie and Phil go to see Lyle (Kevin Clash), one of the former members of The Happytime Gang.
A puppet who now runs a sort of Dick Tracy-eqsue poker game he demands Connie wait outside. “No humans allowed.” Phil reveals she’s not fully human. “I have a puppet liver.” Lyle forces Connie to snort pure uncut purple sugar.
The bizarre idea of a human having a puppet organ is weird even by the standards set by The Happytime Murders. Like everything else in the story, it all ties back to the fateful “missed shot”. The Happytime Murders uses Connie’s puppet liver as an excuse to play her “purple crank” addiction for laughs.
Henson’s desire to be darkly comedic is muted by his own inability to commit to the material. The raunchiness in The Happytime Murders never rises above a juvenile tittering of puppets doing and saying naughty things. With rare exception such as when Phil goes into a puppet porno store to talk to the owner. As the owner steps out we see an octopus milking a cow on her back for the camera. It’s such a truly demented idea. Phil’s dumbfounded reaction contrasted with the proprietor’s ho-hum attitude make the joke a haunting specter of what could have been.
The rest of the jokes never reach the brain-meltingly disturbing heights of that one scene. Phil and Sandy have a tryst in his office which leads to a groan-inducing sight gag. Henson is so enamored with the idea of puppet sex he ends the copulation with a minute long ejaculation gag. For Henson, the mere act of the taboo is hilarious as opposed to why the act is considered taboo.
Worse than all of this is the way Henson treats human women in The Happytime Murders. Much like Cool World, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Happytime Murders implies that sexual attraction might cross the species lines. Except in the former two, it is only implied. In fact Who Framed Roger Rabbit? even went so far as to imply the seemingly innocuous game of “pattycakes” wasn’t quite so innocent as it appeared. Henson, once again, sticks dynamite into the maw of subtlety and blows it to smithereens.
Puppet with human sex is implied, never shown, with the exception of some excerpts we see back at the porno shop. The problem is, with the exception of the excerpts we do see, all the implied human and puppet sexual relationships involve human women. Slinky, curvaceous, objects who fawn over their perfectly sewn benefactors. Taken along with the egregiously outdated and offensive running gag of people constantly misgendering McCarthy’s Connie, The Happytime Murders begins to curdle what little good faith granted experimental storytelling.
Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the one human from The Happytime Gang and Phil’s ex-lover, is a stripper at a rundown strip joint. She and Phil have two brief scenes together that made me cringe. Berger and Henson, among the many other offenses, have no clue how to construct the expository dialogue.
It doesn’t help that by the end Berger and Henson trot out one of the most pervasive cockroach-like tropes regarding bisexuals. Once again using inanimate objects as stand-ins for peoples has the exact opposite effect the metaphor is trying to achieve. I squirmed in my seat when the all too predictable twist was revealed. I could smell the toxic nonsense a mile away.
Melissa McCarthy miraculously wrings a few laughs out of Berger’s puerile and juvenile humor-laden script. She plows through Henson’s almost too lackadaisical direction, and somehow almost forms a complete character. McCarthy can take a joke that has no business working and through some dark wizardry make them work.
Henson gives The Happytime Murders a drab muted color pallet. Channeling the likes of Chinatown and The Big Sleep he never captures the joy or dark beauty of either feature. The failure of nerve courses through every frame of The Happytime Murders. Constantly it feels as if Henson and his crew are on the cusp of finding the balance of tone and execution for the material.
The Happytime Murders isn’t the worst film of the year, but it is without question the most frustrating and irritating. The talent behind the screen is too vast and capable to label The Happytime Murders a complete failure. Sadly, the talent involved doesn’t save it from being a depressing and erratic mess.