[Screen It]


(2018) (Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph) (R)

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Comedy: In a world where humans and sentient puppets co-exist, a cop and a private detective must work together to solve a string of puppet murders.
In a world where humans and sentient puppets co-exist, Phil Philips (BILL BARRETTA) is a puppet private investigator who used to be a cop until he slipped up in the line of duty and accidentally shot an innocent bystander. He now lives a life of smoking, drinking, pining for his former human girlfriend, Jenny (ELIZABETH BANKS), and working cases out of an office in seedy downtown Los Angeles.

His life changes when he becomes embroiled in the string of murders targeting the former puppet stars of "Happytime Gang," a long-ago canceled TV sitcom. Among the cast members is his brother, Larry (VICTOR YERRID), who like the others is about to strike it rich once a lucrative syndication deal kicks in. But Phil learns that this accord is key to catching the killer. His former boss, Lt. Banning (LESLIE DAVID BAKER), convinces Phil to team up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (MELISSA McCARTHY), who despises him for the near-fatal mistake he made years earlier that cost him his badge and almost cost Connie her life.

At the same time, Phil is working a blackmail case brought to him by a seductive puppet named Sandra (DORIEN DAVIES) that starts to tie in with the Happytime Murders. As he gets closer to the truth, FBI Agent Campbell (JOEL McHALE) begins to suspect Phil is the murderer. On the run for crimes he didn't commit, Phil needs Connie and his faithful secretary, Bubbles (MAYA RUDOLPH), more than ever.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
OK, "The Happytime Murders" is a movie that could have worked and worked brilliantly if the people involved had just gotten a handle on their concept, their story, the story's tone, and ... well ... a lot more. Yes, dear readers, it's that R-rated comedy you've probably seen commercials and trailers for featuring Muppet-like puppets smoking, drinking, gambling, cursing, fornicating, and killing.

Now, I grew up with The Muppets. Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Animal, Gonzo, and the rest of the gang. Fans of those beloved characters should know they are NOT in this film. They are never referenced. Their legacy is completely safe over at The Walt Disney Co. and completely separate from this story, even though the actual puppets featured have the physical characteristics of those that lived on Sesame Street, once solved a great caper themselves, took Manhattan, and (of course) worked at the Muppet Theater.

"The Happytime Murders" is directed by Brian Henson, son of Muppets legend Jim Henson, and it is produced by a division of the family business known as "Henson Alternative." I understand the need to stretch creatively. I really do. Years ago, Jerry Zucker wanted to take a break from his and his brothers' parody gag-fests like "Airplane!" and "Top Secret." So, he made "Ghost." And it was great! Wes Craven was known for years and years as the director of such slasher fests as "Scream," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," and "The Hills Have Eyes." But two-thirds of the way through his horror career, he used his filmmaking skills to direct "Music of the Heart" about one teacher's struggle to teach inner-city youth the violin. It starred Meryl Streep, and it was legitimately touching.

"The Happytime Murders" plays less like Henson and Co. stretching creatively and more like them trying to prove they can be every bit as crass, edgy and profane as people like Seth MacFarlane and Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And the resulting film plays more like an unearthed gag reel the various puppeteers might have spliced together over the years and shown at holiday parties and employee farewell dinners, featuring puppets doing naughty, nasty things. "Hey, what would a puppet orgy look like?" "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to take shotguns to the Muppets and blow their heads off?" "Hey, remember when we were able to get clouds of Marlboro smoke to come out of the Muppets' mouths?"

"The Happytime Murders" indeed tells a "Roger Rabbit"-like story that's set in a world where humans co-exist with sentient puppets. Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is a puppet that used to be a cop, but lost his badge when he accidentally shot an innocent bystander while trying to save his partner Connie's (Melissa McCarthy) life. He now works as a private investigator in the seedy part of Los Angeles and spends his days mostly chain smoking and gulping down cheap whiskey.

His life changes when he becomes mixed up in a series of murders targeting the cast of a long-canceled sitcom that starred his former human girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks) and a majority-puppet cast, including his vain brother Larry (Victor Yerrid). He teams up with Connie, who has become bitter and bigoted towards puppets over the years, to try and find the killer. Meanwhile, Phil is also working on a blackmail case involving a nymphomaniac puppet named Sandra (Dorien Davies) that begins to tie in with the Happytime Murders.

Henson and screenwriters Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson are all over the map tonally with this one. Phil narrates the film like he is some kind of foul-mouthed Bogart from the Golden Age of 1940s noir films. But when he and Connie team up, the film shifts to an '80s-tinged buddy copy complete with a score that sounds like it could have been composed by Mike Post in his "The A-Team," "Hardcastle and McCormick," "Magnum P.I" and "Riptide" years. It doesn't help that the flick has all of the production value of an episode of "Matt Houston." Yikes, does this look cheap! And themes like racial inequality and entertainment industry exploitation are touched upon, but quickly abandoned to devote more screen time to cheap gags and raunch.

Now, I will be completely honest here and acknowledge that there are some big laughs delivered throughout this film's merciful 90-minute running time. The Phil and Sandra sex scene, which was ruined in the red band trailer, is hilarious. And behind-the-scenes footage that plays over the end credits showing how the puppeteers filmed this scene is just as funny, right down to the puppeteers staying in character between takes. There's also a great cameo by McCarthy's husband, Ben Falcone.

But after a while, the novelty of "Muppets Gone Wild" wears off, and you realize this would be a really bad movie if a cast of entirely human stars were acting out the same story. In that way, it reminded me of an awful stage play I saw a while back called "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" in which Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" characters were depicted as a bunch of grown-up loser emos. Linus is a drug addict, Pig Pen is a bullying homophobe, Lucy is a convicted arsonist, Sally has gone Goth, Schroeder's the victim of child sexual abuse, and Snoopy contracted rabies and had to be put down after killing a "little yellow bird" in the neighborhood.

Oh yeah. That was yet another two hours of my life I'll never get back. The problem with that play and this movie is that both are so relentlessly ugly, and their only hook is how they take innocent childhood creations of the masses and turn them bad for the sake of edginess. It's where their creativity begins and ends. They're empty entertainments, good for a few shocks and laughs but would otherwise not exist without their more enduring and endearing progenitors. I give "The Happytime Murders" a 4 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed August 22, 2018 / Posted August 24, 2018

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