The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders is one of those movies that sounds like a great idea until you actually see it, at which point you realize it's a terrible idea. Or at least it's terrible as done here. The film fancies itself as a cross between The Muppet Movie and a buddy-cop comedy like The Heat. If only it contained even a small percentage of their inspiration, it might have been passable entertainment. Instead, this is a one-joke affair where the joke becomes obnoxious within a few minutes, leaving you to spend the rest of the running time wondering how much longer the agony will go on.

The story takes place in a city where humans and puppets co-exist. A disgraced puppet cop-turned-private investigator, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), begins looking into a series of gruesome puppet murders. All of the victims were once stars of a popular TV sitcom called The Happytime Gang. (Elizabeth Banks portrays its only human star.) In order to crack the case, Phil has to re-team with his old partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). They do not get along, thanks to some unresolved baggage from their shared past. The investigation takes them to some of the seediest areas of town.

The most important element needed to make a concept like this work is the one thing you might think would be least important for a raunchy puppet comedy – a rock-solid plot. The Happytime Murders lacks that. Little attention is given to creating a mystery with the kinds of twists and turns that keep you hooked. Everything is bare-bones. Figuring out the “surprise” plot twist is also ridiculously easy. Look at something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which similarly tells a detective story in a world where people and fictional creatures interact. That film's attention to storytelling detail makes all the cartoon-related jokes work. They have a context in which to exist.

Without that strong sense of plotting, The Happytime Murders' over-reliance on raunchy puppet-based humor becomes smack-you-in-the-face gratuitous. How many times can you hear a puppet say the F-word or call someone an asshole before it's no longer shocking? How many times can you see them taking drugs or having sex before the novelty value wears off? How many times can you see them getting killed and having their stuffing blown all over the place before you grow tired of it? The answer is “not many.”

Left without any other tricks up its sleeve, the screenplay by Todd Berger simply repeats these things in various ways, to diminishing returns. There's a spoof of Basic Instinct that feels two decades too late, and a puppet sex scene that might have seemed edgier had Team America: World Police and Sausage Party not outdone it previously. You can only be cutting edge if you're actually cutting that edge.

I have no clue why Melissa McCarthy would want to be in this movie. Connie Edwards is not a character designed to showcase her considerable comedic talents. That's because she is, to a large degree, the straight-man here. The puppets are the ones who get to do the most outrageous stuff. It might have worked better to cast a very serious dramatic actor – think Tommy Lee Jones or Melissa Leo – in the partner role, just to emphasize the discrepancy between worlds. Casting a comedian and then not really allowing them to do much that's funny feels like a missed opportunity.

The Happytime Murders was directed by Brian Henson, son of the legendary Muppets creator Jim. The elder Henson always had aspirations to tell more adult stories using his felt puppets, who were even regulars on Saturday Night Live during its first season. Making a movie that's crude for the sake of crudeness is not the way to accomplish that goal. There are one or two scattered things that elicit a chuckle. By and large, though, this is a rancid, unpleasant comedy that runs 80 minutes, minus end credits, and still feels about 70 minutes too long.

( out of four)

The Happytime Murders is rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.

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