‘Happytime Murders’ less Muppets, more McCarthy

Image courtesy STX Entertainment.

2/10 I was optimistic for The Happytime Murders. Director/producer Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son, is obviously more a Muppet guy than a Melissa McCarthy guy, and I was hoping this would be more of a Muppet movie than a Melissa McCarthy movie.

Again, my hopes were dashed.

The Happytime Murders tells the tale of Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a disgraced Los Angeles cop turned private investigator. Los Angeles suffers from an intense racial divide between puppets and humans — in the movie, it mirrors the divide between white cops and black Angelenos so closely that I can’t tell if it was meticulously planned or lazily drawn from the closest available headlines — and once, Phillips was the first ever puppet to become a police officer. On a case, he becomes entangled with a serial killer stalking the cast of The Happytime Gang, the a cultural touchstone from the ‘90s that helped mend relations between people and puppets. Phillips and his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy, who also produces) are thrust together to find the killer before the entire cast is exterminated.

Finding the killer likely means finding one of the castmates, all of whom stand to benefit from each other’s deaths — The Happytime Gang is about to go into syndication, at which point a massive royalty will be divided evenly among the surviving cast members. All of the former stars have fallen on hard times, and Phillips’ and Edwards’ investigation leads them on a tour of the darkest depths of Los Angeles puppet depravity.

I was hoping that this would be more a Muppet movie with Melissa McCarthy in it than a Melissa McCarthy movie with Muppets in it, but sadly, McCarthy’s is the dominant aesthetic. Her hallmarks are all there — the script that reads like it was written in one draft, the grossout gags that feel like they were sprinkled into it more or less at random after the fact to tick the “jokes” box, the camerawork that looks like it was strategized around doing as little production work as possible instead of production work that was strategized to make the camerawork sing, the obvious, unfunny cameo for her husband who no one else will hire.

The Happytime Murders obviously draws a ton of inspiration from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a gritty noir set in a world that humans share with ACME cartoons. But while the ‘88 film was both highly entertaining and a somber retrospective that displayed intimate knowledge of both long-dead genres, The Happytime Murders is a dumb, lazy Melissa McCarthy movie that offers almost nothing to reward Muppet fans, noir fans or general audiences.

Take the humor. None of the comedy connects to the central conceit, it’s just “subversive” — a word which here means, “funny because the puppet said a cuss.” The detective story on the other side of the coin feels like an afterthought, just a skeleton plot to string unfunny lines together, and one that doesn’t make any sense at all when you look at it directly. Probably the most important lapse is the fake death that’s just glossed over, but my favorite is the part where an FBI officer tells Edwards, an LAPD officer, that she’s suspended, and everyone just goes with it.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when Baby Herman delivers exposition early in the film, it’s funny because of the disconnect between his baby body and his smarmy New York gangster dialogue. There’s an inherent tension at play here that keeps the scene funny 30 years after its release, even in the absence of a traditional joke, and it’s funny while doing the business of the plot, which is an actual well thought-out mystery story.

But in The Happytime Murders, when Sandra White (Dorian Davies) says, “I’m a sexual Ima. If Ima next to it, I’mma gonna fuck it,” it’s not funny because, well, it’s not funny. That’s not a funny line, and it doesn’t become funny just because it’s coming out of a puppet’s mouth. It’s ostensibly related to the plot in this particular scene — she’s telling Phillips that her sexual promiscuity is being used to blackmail her — but that turns out to be a red herring anyway.

The camerawork is also lazy and bad. The depth of field is just off in most scenes, with walls right behind the actors looking like they’re miles away. Several scenes are shot from only one direction as if they couldn’t be bothered to build an entire set.

Scenes are all boring, flat shot/reverse shot, but on the rather frequent occasion that violence breaks out, the movie suddenly has all sorts of camera angles that conveniently obscure everyone’s face, and it cuts between all of them in the span of about a second just so they wouldn’t have to block out a stage punch.

This shit absolutely drives me up a wall. It’s a stage punch! You’re too lazy to do a stage punch? Small children can do stage punches! They’ll set up two or three extra cameras just so they can avoid actually doing the only stunts in the entire movie, but that’s the only reason in the world they’ll do it.

But what’s really lazy and bad is McCarthy. She can be so great when she’s directed properly and given a clear character, but she never does that for herself. She’s always at her worst as an actress when she produces, often hiring her husband to direct. All the movies she has creative control over end up falling on the same unfunny tropes, and all her characters in those movies are just as nondescript.

The Happytime Murders, however, represents a leap forward in her laziness. We’ve now got a Melissa McCarthy movie in which McCarthy has pushed herself to the background, with Phillips getting the lion’s share of the screentime instead. In a reduced role, McCarthy gives a noticeably reduced effort — at most points in the movie, she’s almost eerily still, simply standing up straight and delivering her lines. Toward the end, she’s being held at gunpoint, and she’s still not moving — her arms are flat at her side not doing anything, and she’s making a scared face, but that’s all.

Her career has been winding down since the second it started with her breakout role in 2011’s Bridesmaids. If you take out movies with other directors and stars and focus on the ones that hung solely on her to market them, you see a steady decline — from 2014’s Tammy ($84.5 million domestic) to 2016’s The Boss ($63.3 million) to Life of the Party in May ($52.9 million) to The Happytime Murders, which has made just $20.7 million domestic against a $40 million budget.

This massive failure surely won’t be a career-killer for her. Her awards season entry Can You Ever Forgive Me, which she only starred in and did not have an official role as a creative, holds a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes ahead of limited release Oct. 19. Next year will see her exclusively in front of the camera for The Kitchen, but she’ll serve as producer/star in Super Intelligence, with her husband directing.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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