Moviegoers of a certain age and temperament will never see Silly String, the Wham-O product turned forgettable fad almost five decades ago, the same way again after Brian “Son of Jim” Henson’s (The Muppet Christmas Carol) R-rated, puppet-themed comedy, The Happytime Murders, hits an all-too-early, literal climax involving two super-enthusiastic, randy puppets engaged in sexual congress of an entirely unexpected kind. It blows past the boundaries of good taste (whatever that is) into seriously demented, shock, and awe territory. It’s subversive with a small “s,” probably worthy of applause and appreciation, but it’s also laugh out loud, “slide to the floor out of your recliner” hilarious. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill on a bike with no brakes from there, the gags become less frequent and novel, the jokes take on repetitive staleness, and the characters, human and puppet alike, go through the motions of a tired, overused neo-noir/buddy cop plot.
The Happytime Murders’ lead character, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), a onetime cop turned private eye – the first and last puppet to become a detective – smokes too much and talks too much, mostly via noir-borrowed voiceover. He cruises the sleazier parts of LA, looking for trouble, stepping in to help the bullied, downtrodden members of LA’s puppet community (they’re like every marginalized, outsider group rolled into one broad stereotype), or taking questionable cases involving blackmail from potential femme fatales, but the first murder of several – fact check: it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title – forces Philips to reunite with his bitter, anti-puppet ex-partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Someone’s systematically targeting the cast of a long defunct TV series, “The Happytime Gang,” five or six puppets, including Phil’s older brother, Larry Shenanigans (Victor Yerrid), and Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the token human and Phil’s ex.
The investigation takes Phil and Edwards to even sleazier parts of LA, including a porn shop with an extremely exclusive clientele, a shooting gallery where the drug of puppet choice, sucrose, can be bought for 50 cents or a blowjob, the dirty, grimy LA piers, and even a cult-like community outside LA where puppets have consciously segregated themselves from the majority human population. The by-the-numbers, threadbare investigation plot gives Phil and Edwards a supposedly much-needed chance to re-bond after almost two decades apart while throwing insults at each other and anyone unfortunate enough to cross their individual and collective paths, running gags or jokes like puppets constantly mistaking Edwards for a man (it’s even less funny than it sounds) or Edwards borrowed-from-Wayne’s-World “Asshole says what?” joke, and, of course, puppet sex (the real reason why anyone would want to see The Happytime Murders).
The Happytime Murders spent the better part of a decade in development. It probably should have remained another decade in development. When Henson, here consciously trying to subvert the positivity and optimism of his father’s singular creations, and his screenwriting team of Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson aren’t borrowing plot points from Alien Nation, they’re borrowing plot points from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Hanson can’t even claim “first” status. A pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles, Avenue Q, and even Henson’s own Puppet Up! (live improv sketch theater) have already mined the same territory. Jackson gleefully took a no-holds-barred approach to deconstructing Jim Henson’s carefully constructed mythology, making the puppets in his universe reflect the vilest, most repulsive, most disgusting behavior humanly possible. To be fair, The Happytime Murders has its share of subversive shocks, but that “share” amounts to just a handful of scenes and even fewer memorable bits or gags, all the more disappointing given an R-rating that should have given Henson the freedom to do and say practically anything he wanted. Ultimately, it’s not surprising why The Happytime Murders got more or less dumped at the tail end of August: It’ll be long gone and long forgotten before the Labor Day Weekend hits in two weeks.