Puppet Say What?: Human cast and puppeteers bring ribald commitment to scattershot "Happytime Murders"

The Happytime Murders (2018)
91 min., rated R.

The late Jim Henson probably would have never guessed that his company's Henson Alternative banner would be able to greenlight a theatrical film in which its first visual gag perversely involved a lactating cow giving an octopus a money shot in the backroom of a porn shop. That’s just the tip in “The Happytime Murders,” a filthy, hard-R-rated noir with puppets that wears bad taste and shock value as a badge of honor. Joining the ranks of 1989’s “Meet the Feebles,” 2004’s “Team America: World Police,” and 2016’s “Sausage Party,” if not really with the same results, this one-joke comedy showboats as a raunchy, dirty-minded twist on a family-friendly brand, but it’s hit-and-miss when it comes to the blue, profane material, which is the film’s entire selling point and raison d'être. Stepping out of the shadow of father and Muppets creator Jim Henson, director Brian Henson (1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island”) and screenwriter Todd Berger deliver exactly the kind of movie they’re selling — it’s rampantly juvenile, like hearing a teenage boy’s discovery of the words “pussy,” “fuck,” and “cock” that are repeated over and over, but only periodically funny.

In the City of Angels, puppets coexist with humans, but they are considered inferior. Disgraced from the LAPD after his poor handling of a hostage situation that subsequently put a law in place to prevent puppets from being on the force, washed-up, hard-boiled private eye puppet Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) is hired by nymphomaniac/femme fatale puppet Sandra (Dorien Davies) to look into a blackmailing scheme against her. When the assignment takes him to XXX shop Vinny’s Puppet Pleasureland, he witnesses the aftermath of a puppet massacre of shredded fluff, including bunny Mr. Bumblypants (Kevin Clash), who was once part of the ensemble of a popular ‘90s sitcom ‘The Happytime Gang.” At the scene of the crime, Phil clashes with his ex-partner, sugar-addicted FBI detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who testified against Phil twelve years ago after an incident that nearly took her life (a puppet liver transplant saved her). When Phil’s brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) becomes the next hit, he believes someone is bumping off the entire cast of “The Happytime Gang,” so Phil and Connie must reluctantly team up again.

“The Happytime Murder” isn’t always as outrageously witty as it thinks it is, but it isn’t without its comically inspired, so-very-wrong bits, including a wham-bam-thank-you-mam puppet sex scene, complete with Silly String ejaculation that Phil’s secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) is prepared to clean with her disinfectant spray bottle ready to go. The filmmakers coast on the idea that puppets are people, too—they are oversexed, they drink and smoke, they ingest a lot of drugs, and they could all use their mouths washed out with soap—and it’s shocking and a little subversive at first before the novelty tuckers out. When the gumshoe mystery and buddy-cop comedy are given time to breathe over all of the R-rated gags, the film works more than not and even cleverly incorporates the “carpet matching the drapes” as a plot point (don’t ask); with that said, there is a spoof of the crotch-flashing interrogation scene in “Basic Instinct," but it would have been more surprising had it not already been used this year in “Deadpool 2." Director Brian Henson and writer Todd Berger do miss an opportunity to flesh out their world populated by humans and puppets, who are marginalized as second-class citizens in society. “Sock” is considered a slur to them, and that’s really as far as the allegory about race and discrimination goes.

There’s nothing wrong with the very basic concept behind “The Happytime Murders” or even paying homage to a classic hard-boiled film noir with puppets and humans, but it’s a disappointment that the overall execution feels strained. As scattershot as some of the humor tends to be, the puppeteering craft is still on point, and the puppeteers’ hard work gets to be rightfully showcased during the end-credit reel. Ironically, the best laughs come from the humans. The irrepressibly funny Melissa McCarthy never not commits, handling potshots at her supposed masculinity and sexual solicitation with pluck and valiant self-deprecation as Connie Edwards, and she does have an amusing banter with Bill Barretta's Phil Phillips, even if he's a chain-smoking puppet. Maya Rudolph is game as ever, playing Phil’s bubbly and loyal secretary appropriately named Bubbles, whose best scene is shared with McCarthy when she uses her expert lock-picking skills. Elizabeth Banks turns up as Jenny, Phil’s former flame and the only human cast member of “The Happytime Gang,” who’s turned to stripping, playing her quiet scenes with the utmost earnestness and then getting a chuckle out of a striptease act to a bunch of horny rabbits with a carrot and a peeling knife. They're all in on the joke, but they all bring as much commitment to this ribald silliness as they would to a serious drama. One thing is for sure that “The Happytime Murders” would make the Muppets blush and maybe feel a little naughty.

Grade: C +