Film & TV

Muppets Go (Almost) X-Rated

Melissa McCarthy (with “Phil Philips,” voiced by Bill Barretta) in Happyland Murders (Hopper Stone)
The Happytime Murders calls in the puppet pros to tell dirty jokes, at length.

You, genteel reader, are far too refined to be tempted to buy a ticket for a spectacularly inappropriate R-rated comedy about imitation Muppets gone bad. I, however, needed to get out of the house that evening, and so my feet led me to The Happytime Murders, in which fuzzy felt puppets patronize porn shops, work as hookers, snort drugs, etc. On occasion, one of them gets his head blown off with a shotgun, and gruesome wads of fluff go everywhere. The movie contains the most gonzo bodily-emissions joke I’ve ever seen (you may have seen it in the red-band trailer), and if it involved humans instead of puppets, it would have earned it an X rating.

If there are any readers left by this point, you are thinking, yeah, it’s outlandish but . . . is it funny? Not really. Happytime has its moments, but they’re scattered here and there. For the most part it’s just a dumb whodunnit that has as many twists and turns as a toothpick, along with inappropriate-behavior gags that lack imagination and get tiresome quickly.

Recalling last December’s Netflix movie Bright (in which humans and orcs served on the LAPD together), HBO’s animated series Animals (cartoon critters doing R-rated stuff), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (not to mention mismatched-cop comedies like 48 Hrs.), The Happytime Murders isn’t completely out of left field, but the idea of Sesame-meets-42nd Street is fresh enough to be interesting. The movie doesn’t do enough with it. Moreover, several jokes comparing the plight of puppets to that of black Americans aren’t funny and trivialize the legitimate grievances of the latter group.

Melissa McCarthy is the funniest actress working today, yet Hollywood still can’t figure out how to make the most of her. Either that, or she doesn’t have great taste in scripts. It’s now been five years since she worked with a screenplay worthy of her talents — The Heat, one of the funniest films of this century — and she might be better off going back to episodic television, whose comedy writers seem to have more leeway to pursue nutty ideas that ignore movie formulas. She plays her patented acerbic, foul-mouthed broad, an L.A. cop whose former partner, Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta), was the first and only puppet allowed on the LAPD but was fired for supposedly being unwilling to shoot a fellow puppet who had taken his partner hostage. Now he’s a Philip Marlowe–style cynical private eye, and the two of them are tasked with solving a series of bloody (well, cottony) murders of puppets linked to a popular kids’ TV show co-hosted by a human (Elizabeth Banks).

Disney bought the Muppets in 2004, so you won’t hear the word in this non-Disney movie, but there’s a lot of Muppet DNA here, starting with the director: Brian Henson, Jim’s son, has been a Muppet performer for decades and directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. The puppets look like Muppets and are operated by old Muppet pros, including Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who used to play Elmo but resigned from Sesame Street in 2012 amid accusations of sex with underage boys. (Four lawsuits were dismissed on a technicality because the statute of limitations had expired; Clash reportedly paid one accuser $125,000.) That Clash has returned to showbiz in a movie about horny puppets seems to say something about Hollywood. Is it because he’s not a household name that he gets to shed his pariah status?

The movie itself actually has considerably less wit and bounce than a real Muppet film. Far from being freewheeling, it’s a slog to sit through. I was surprised to see the screenplay credited to one guy, Todd Berger (with story by Berger and Dee Austin Robertson). If any movie called for pinging every comedy writer in the 310 area code and urging them to pile on with their wildest gags, it would seem to be this one. Instead, the story moves like Snuffleupagus. Whole scenes go by without anything much happening, and the movie’s tendency to let dirty jokes go on too long (such as in an endless scene in a porn shop) costs it opportunities to do more interesting, weirder jokes: The highlight of the movie is a demented little riff by Maya Rudolph, as the private eye’s secretary, who talks about what happens to puppets who get sent to prison. Apparently their insides get ripped out and replaced by rice pilaf. No joke involving prison and the words “rice pilaf” can fail to be funny.

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