Ah the late 80s. The perfect time to use what is traditionally a children’s medium – puppetry – and twist it on it’s head to push boundaries of what we are used to seeing puppets do. Sex, swearing, drugs! Amazing. Wait? It’s 2018 and Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles came out nearly 30 years ago and our expectations of what constitutes pushing the boundaries and comedy has entirely changed and evolved!? Sadly the team behind the abysmal The Happytime Murders didn’t get the memo.
When I first started performing stand up comedy in 2013 I made the classic mistake a lot of new comics do. I thought that being offensive and being funny were the same thing. They aren’t. It’s a hard lesson for a timid newbie to learn but an extremely valuable and important one.
Now that’s not to say that offensive things can’t be funny because of course they can. But they also need to be original, well written or at the very least moderately engaging. The Happytime Murders fails at every turn to provide humour beyond that of jokes that a 16-year-old school boy might find funny after sneaking bourbon from his parents’ liquor cabinet and vomiting out his bedroom window (true story).
The Happytime Murders follows the story of puppet detective Phil Phillips (voiced appropriately by Bill Baretta) a now private eye with a troubled past who is forced to team up with his ex partner Detective Connie Edwards (the appropriately cast Melissa McCarthy).
Here’s the kicker though – these two don’t get along due to – wait for it – a troubled past! Lots of troubled pasts are floating around in this cringely cliche storyline that jumps through plot points as though they’re trying to keep the runtime to 90 minutes (which thank God they did). If you haven’t figured out the murder mystery result by the 45 minute mark then maybe jizzing puppets are your cup of tea.
To be fair though this isn’t necessarily the kind of film you see for an amazing storyline. You see it for the jokes right? Sadly the it’s-been-done-before gimmick of puppets swearing and doing adult things runs thin in about the first 7 minutes and sadly, this gimmick is what the entire film relies on for it’s entire runtime. I rolled my eyes more times than I laughed and I only rolled my eyes 5 times (I was being extremely restrained).
The funniest parts were in the trailer and the trailer itself presented a film that could go either way. The few times I did let out a mild sound of amusement was at the dialogue between the human performers rather than the puppets which furthered my resentment towards this wasted opportunity. I’m not suggesting all comedy films need to be nuanced or layered or even deep – shallow, stupid comedy can be amazing (Ace Ventura anyone?) but it has to be funny. It can’t just be crude. It can’t just be the jokes from the trailer repeated for 90 minutes. It just can’t.
A lot of my frustration with The Happytown Murders stems from the fact that creator Brian Henson has the talent, experience and studio backing to provide an amazing, hilarious and interesting story for adults using the studio HA (Henson Alternative). Talented puppeteers and disturbingly familiar puppets provide the platform for a brilliant comedic opportunity. What Henson does however is direct a shallow, uninteresting, unfunny mess of a film that despite the valiant efforts of its talented and usually very funny cast, falls flat at every single turn.
The problem lies within the script. The actors, puppeteers and director Henson himself are all extremely talented and do an admirable job with what they have to work with but the awful script (by reasonably inexperienced feature writer Todd Berger) means the project was doomed from day one. It worries me how many highly paid studio executives had to approve this terrible piece of writing for the movie to get made. Why did no one put their hand up and say “shouldn’t it be funny?” That person could have gotten a raise.
Modern audiences do and should expect more from highly funded studio comedy films. This isn’t one of Adam Sandlers’ Netflix films. But it’s so bad it may as well be.
– Ashton Brown