A raunchy black comedy that puts people and puppets together on the big screen to solve a murder mystery sounds like an idea hatched in comedic heaven, but we may have to wait for some other movie than The Happytime Murders to see it done right — at least, according to just about every major critic who’s screened this one.
Director Brian Henson’s (son of Jim Henson) subversive, R-rated take on the puppet comedy is drawing almost universally poor reactions from film critics, most of whom say Melissa McCarthy and a cast of stars with real comedic bona fides can’t elevate the movie above crassness and cheap, easy jokes that quickly wear out their welcome. The plot's simple enough: McCarthy plays a detective named Connie Edwards, who teams with fellow puppet cop Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) to track down the serial killer who murdered Phil’s brother (and a whole bunch of other people).
What’s remarkable is how universal the negative reactions have been — a phenomenon that may, in fact, be generating more buzz around The Happytime Murders than a more benign and muted critical reception might have.
Here’s a glimpse at what reviewers are saying, in descending order from the mildly critical to the downright scathing:
The Happytime Murders is hardly sophisticated comic entertainment. It's coarse, crude and vulgar and threatens to wear out its welcome despite its brevity. But if you don't find it uproariously funny at times, you must be made of cloth.
Ms. McCarthy has proved her comic mettle in all kinds of company, so why not alongside a chain-smoking blue guy in a rumpled suit? She and the other non-inanimate actors — Mainly Ms. Banks, Maya Rudolph and Leslie David Baker — get to do a bit of silly riffing, but it’s mostly tired, bloodless stuff. The plot should be an excuse for comic invention, but it mostly just gets in the way, which makes me think that a feature film isn’t really what Phil and his ilk need or deserve. Like their mainstream Muppet brethren, they might be more at home on smaller screens, in shorter bits. No disrespect.
What’s disappointing, however, is that the film never quite dares to tweak any of the conventions of the Henson legacy itself; frankly, the original Muppet Show was infinitely more self-referential. No, this film appears to have one goal and one goal only: to stage a scene where a puppet projectile-ejaculates Silly String. It’s just about the only thing in The Happytime Murders that sticks.
…[T]he movie fails its one big test: It’s just not all that funny. Screenwriter Todd Berger periodically provides moments that push the envelope so hard that they at least earn a gasp — a porn shoot involving a lactating cow and an octopus, for instance — but once it’s clear that these are hard-R puppets with hard-R habits, it runs out of places to go.
The Happytime Murders…is a one-joke premise with a punchline that’s already been told elsewhere, and more sharply. Viewers may think they know the full story of their stitches-and-stuffing playthings, but these are not your grandfather’s Saturday-morning pals. These puppets curse as if they’re going out for a regional theatre production of Goodfellas…
…This script, having inexplicably spent a decade-plus in various stages of pre-development, has been cobbled together from better ideas other people have already thought of. There’s a bleak poetic irony to that being the chief issue with a movie about reconstituted toys arguing for their legitimacy as living things.
There’s the framework for a movie that starts off with a rapid-fire series of shock gags, and devolves into a stupid action film where McCarthy’s character is routinely mistaken for a man (gee, that’s hilarious) and wonderful actors such as Maya Rudolph are left to flounder about with little to do or say, and we just keep hoping the filmmakers will cut this thing short, and they do, and we thank them for that.
Ouch. Currently, The Happytime Murders enjoys (if that’s the right word) a 13 percent certified fresh rating among the aggregator’s pool of top critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and a 29 percent fresh rating from critics overall.
This is one movie that has critical consensus is so vehemently stacked against it that the idea of going to see what the fuss is all about is actually kind of alluring. Just don’t hold it against us if you come away from the theater thinking it’s as bad as they say. With a cast including McCarthy, Barretta, Mya Rudolph, Joel McHale, and Elizabeth Banks, and directed by Henson from a screenplay by Todd Berger, The Happytime Murders saunters its sassy self into theaters everywhere Friday.