Late August is something of a cinematic wasteland. Informally known as the “August Dump,” it’s the period between the end of the summer blockbusters and the rollout of the serious Oscar contenders. In other words, an ideal stretch to release what distributors have deemed “damaged goods” into the multiplex. And that brings me to the raunchy puppet comedy, “The Happytime Murders.” It’s not a good movie, but — and this is a big “but” — I laughed way more than I expected, even though the whole enterprise is really just a one-trick pony, err, puppet. It’s dumb fun, especially if you like tasteless humor. Guilty as charged.
Despite springing from the imagination of director Brian Henson — yes, that Henson, and I suspect daddy, Jim, the legendary creator of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets,” might be doing back flips in his grave — the movie is definitely not wholesome kid entertainment. It more than lives up to its tagline: “No Sesame. All Street.” These puppets are strumpets, gamblers, gangsters and junkies frequenting joints like Vinny’s Puppet Pleasure Land, where an octopus can be seen giving a cow an “eight-arm reach around.” And it just gets filthier from there, including a scene involving puppet ejaculate. You’ll never look at Silly String the same way again. Gross.
Written by Todd Berger from a story credited to Dee Austin Robertson, the old-school noir is set in a world where human and puppets co-exist. The OG of puppet cops, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta, better known as the voice of the Swedish Chef), has been booted out of the force following a tragedy and is now working as a private investigator. The script reunites Phil with his former human partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to work (reluctantly) together to solve a series of murders involving the cast of a once-popular TV puppet show, “The Happytime Gang.” The rest of the human cast is rounded out with a game Maya Rudolph as Phil’s sexy secretary, Bubbles; Elizabeth Banks as Phil’s ex-girlfriend, Jenny, an actress-turned-stripper; and Joel McHale as a tool of an FBI agent.
One day, a sultry stranger shows up in Phil’s office seeking his services to find out who is blackmailing her. Three-hundred dollars (plus expenses) later, and Phil is on her case (double entendre alert). As he cruises the seedy side of Los Angeles in his green Dodge Dart, asking questions, fur flies and the puppet body count grows. Faster than you can say “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” the flimsy plot throws down double crosses, trysts and something called “pilafing.” Yikes!
McCarthy (“Life of the Party”) is a gifted physical comedienne and shares an easy rapport with her puppet partner. But the most enjoyable scene finds McCarthy and Rudolph hilariously riffing off each other as the “Bridesmaid’s” stars partake in a little breaking and entering in the nighttime. It’s pure improv, necessitated by a thin script (it might have worked better as a short) that insists on going back to the same well of jokes. Nonetheless, I laughed.
Believe it or not, the movie does touch on some hot-button themes, such as racist humans treating puppets like they are gum stuck to their shoes. “It’s their world, we just live in it,” one character says. But then the filmmakers do nothing with their provocative premise. It’s a wasted opportunity for topical satire. This movie just isn’t interested in giving the story the Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”) treatment. Henson and company are more excited over simply being crude, employing every cheap joke in the playbook. It might not be for children, but “Happytime” is certainly brought to us by the letters, F, U, C … you get my drift.