The Happytime Murders (Brian Henson, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.
If you like your Muppets mean, raunchy and drugged out, have I got a film for you! Like a cross between Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit and David Ayers’ 2017 Bright (with not quite enough of the former and a little too much of the latter), the movie posits a world where near-life-sized, fully conscious puppets co-exist with humans, though not as equals. Looked down upon, the puppets lead a shadowy existence somewhat below the radar, except for the lucky few who make it as celebrities … or as cops. That should be “cop,” actually, since there’s only ever been one – Phil Philips – who was removed from duty 20 years prior to the story’s start, for reasons we only learn later. A citywide “Philips Rule” now prevents any repeat pretenders.
The Happytime Murders is set in Los Angeles, home to many of the films noir of yesteryear. That’s perfect, since this is a noir, too, complete with Philips’ world-weary voiceover as he prowls the streets in his post-cop role as a private investigator. Soon, a new case brings him smack up against the partner whose actions got him kicked off the force. There’s a killer on the loose, offing the cast members of a 1980s-era human-puppet TV show – “The Happytime Gang” – one by one. Together, the erstwhile colleagues and present-day enemies must solve the mystery, before they become targets, themselves.
Initially brilliant in its spoof of both old Muppet tropes and noir clichés, with the added frisson of outrageously gross and deviant humor, the movie, sadly, wears out its welcome halfway through, devolving into tired variants of its own shtick. It’s too bad, as there is a lot of awesome talent on display, from great voice actor Bill Barretta (many of the roles in a variety of Muppet films and series, including the 2011 The Muppets), as Philips; to Maya Rudolph (Mr. Pig), as Philips’ devoted secretary, Bubbles; to Melissa McCarthy (Spy), as Detective Connie Edwards, that old partner; plus many others. The jokes, initially, work well, until they don’t. The best joke is that Brian Henson – son of Muppet creator Jim Henson – is the director, perverting his father’s legacy with gleeful abandon. And kudos to him, at least at first, as I love how fully realized the world seems, carefully constructed from top to bottom. Too bad the good times don’t last.