Puppets Behaving Badly

Melissa McCarthy Stars in Raunchy Novelty Comedy 

HTM_1 (72)

The Happytime Murders
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks & Bill Barretta
Directed by Brian Henson
R

Hey kids, wanna see a puppet show?

Well, stay away from this one—a crude, lewd comedy for grown-ups in which puppets smoke, drink, curse, snort drugs, visit porno shops and have sex.

Just like real people!

In The Happytime Murders, puppets and people coexist; but puppets are regarded as second-class citizens, and the “socks” are mostly segregated from the “meat bags.” The movie follows puppet P.I. Phil Phillips (voiced and animated by puppeteer Bill Barretta) as he investigates the mounting homicides among the former cast members of a 1980s puppet TV series, The Happytime Gang.

Melissa McCarthy stars in The Happytime MurdersPhil’s work brings him back in contact with his former LAPD partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Several years ago, during their time together on the force, they were L.A.’s first human/cop team—and then an unfortunate on-the-job incident made them the last, and cost Phil his badge.

This all sounds like rather serious stuff, and it is—the movie’s basic framework follows traditional, familiar buddy-cop, film-noir formulas, and that’s its comedic setup. Then it puts puppets into it—puppets doing, and saying, the kind of raw, raunchy things “people” would say in R-rated, buddy-cop comedy-action movies.

As Phillips and Edwards weave their way into the city’s seedy puppet underbelly in search of a serial killer, they find a trail of puppet violence—puppets torn apart by dogs, or blasted into fluff by shotgun blasts—and encounter a spectrum of colorfully coarse characters. In the porno shop, Phil sees an octopus pleasuring a cow, and a dominatrix Dalmatian with a guy dressed as a fireman. Druggie puppets addicted to sugar snort pure sucrose in a “smack house.” A sexual tryst between two puppets ends in a…well, let’s just say you may never look at Silly String the same way again.

Elizabeth Banks stars in The Happytime Murders

Elizabeth Banks

Joel McHale plays an uptight FBI agent. Elizabeth Banks is an exotic dancer, and the only non-puppet former member of the Happytime TV cast. Maya Rudolph is Phil’s longtime assistant. Leslie David Baker (Stanley from TV’s The Office) is continually flustered as Edwards’ police lieutenant. Watch for McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, in a quick cameo.

It’s grim and grimy…but it’s also twistedly funny, full of quips, a parade of puppet oddities, crisp one-liners and some caustic comedic sight gags. (Despite the talents of its capable cast, not every joke works, and a couple land with deadening thuds.) Director Brian Henson, the son of late puppeteering pioneer Jim Henson, certainly knows his stuff; he came out of Muppet land and directed the G-rated Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island flicks.

The Happytime MurdersThe movie comes from an “adult” offshoot of the Henson production company, Henson Alternative. The film’s production company was sued, unsuccessfully, earlier this year, by the producers of Sesame Street, to stop The Happytime Murders from using the tagline “No Sesame. All Street.”

No one should worry about anyone being confused about that; the freakish, four-letter funk of Happytime is a long way from the sunshine and smiles of Sesame Street. But the puppeteering expertise is certainly there, as you’ll see in the end-credits montage, which reveals some of the behind-the-scenes moviemaking magic. And many of the film’s richly experienced puppeteers—including the director and Barretta—have pedigrees that extend, in fact, all the way back through The Muppets and Sesame Street.

There are several words you might use to describe what you see. Shocking, tasteless and disgusting could be among them. On the other hand, you might think it’s hilarious, wickedly original and crazily quirky. Comedy is like that, especially when it dares to push toward the edges; some people are going to get pushed off.

But I’m hanging on. I dug the dirty jokes, off-kilter humor and subversive spin on a crazy world with puppets and humans trying to make their way together. It may not be for everybody now, but give it time, and I predict this nasty, naughty novelty will eventually keep adding to its crowd of dig-it devotees.

In theaters Aug. 24, 2018

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