29 Aug 2018

Movie review: The Happytime Murders

From At The Movies, 7:32 pm on 29 August 2018

A film noir parody set in a version of LA inhabited by humans and puppets, The Happytime Murders is directed by Jim Henson's son Brian, and stars Melissa McCarthy.

Review - There must be something about a career with the Muppets - particularly if your name happens to be Henson.

Director Brian Henson, son of Muppet creator Jim Henson and inheritor of the family business seems to have felt the need to lash out at something. I can't think of any other explanation for the supremely grubby Happytime Murders.

The premise is that humans and puppets live together in Los Angeles, with puppets firmly at the bottom of the heap.

In a not-too-subtle nod at America's racial politics, TV comedy 'The Happytime Gang' was a breakthrough hit for puppets - a community who like nothing more than entertaining.

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Photo: Supplied

Our cynical hero is one Phil Phillips, a puppet private eye with a chip on his shoulder ever since he get kicked out of the police department.

He meets up with his estranged partner - Officer Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy - when he's a witness to a murder. One of the stars of The Happytime Gang has been shot.

The tone of The Happytime Murders is as wayward as its title, with the first murder taking place in a sex shop.

But before we see the victim being shot in a snowstorm of cotton wool, we have to witness a sleazy all-puppet porn shoot, involving a cow and an octopus.

Your amusement at this scene - and indeed, many subsequent similar scenes - will determine how much you warm to The Happytime Murders, which struggles to decide what it wants to be.

It was probably inspired by the rather more sure-footed '80s comedy Who framed Roger Rabbit? which at least offered a star with expressive features in Bob Hoskins.

Phil Phillips, despite being ably operated by puppeteer Bill Beretta, is rather short of these, which puts more pressure on his human co-star. To her credit, Melissa McCarthy accepts that challenge.

There's also plenty of hard work being contributed by other live performers - Elizabeth Banks as Phillips' stripper ex-girlfriend, and the always-game Maya Rudolph as the hard-boiled secretary.

But the emphasis is very much on "hard work".

I've seen the idea of humans and fantasy figures sharing Los Angeles done better and funnier in Roger Rabbit, better and more dramatic in Alien Nation and a better and more charming version of the same plot in Zootopia, and if you're looking for over-the-top bad taste, nothing did R-rated more enthusiastically than early Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles.

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Photo: Supplied

I'm not sure whether the intention of The Happytime Murders was entertainment or therapy, after too long in family movies and TV for director Brian Henson and writer Todd Berger, whose last project was The Smurfs.

Either way, the proof of this particular pudding is the reaction from audiences, and the one I saw it with seemed a little underwhelmed.

They wanted to be amused by gags like the too-long "Muppets having Sex" gag, the "Muppets doing drugs" scene, not to mention the bits of muppets all over the place after yet another Happytime Murder, but despite the best efforts by all concerned - human and puppet performers - it just wasn't very funny.

Not nearly as funny as the original Muppet Show, certainly.

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