Perhaps the nicest thing that could be said about The Happytime Murders, the new noir and Muppet spoof, is that director Brian Henson (son of Jim) had a precise vision for his feature and realized it exactly. Here’s an R-rated comedy for 13-year-olds (and 13-year-olds at heart) who think there’s something transgressive or inherently amusing about childhood totems saying “fuck,” doing drugs, and ejaculating silly string in such abundance they’d give Peter Parker performance anxiety. Set in a grimy segregated version of Los Angeles in which flesh and felt don’t mix, Happytime follows a furry, blue, hard-boiled gumshoe, Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta), who investigates, then is implicated in, a series of killings targeting the washed-up stars of a Sesame Street–like ’80s show called The Happytime Gang.
This premise holds some promise, but The Happytime Murders is a joyless, soulless slog, wasting the efforts of co-stars Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Banks. (Only Maya Rudolph, playing Phil’s ditzy but puppet-tolerant secretary Bubbles, escapes pity.) Todd Berger’s script is reliant on empty shock and faux-edgy sleaze, the juvenile gags practically dripping with self-congratulation. Phil’s visit to a downtown brothel-cum-porn-studio leads to a Dalmatian whipping a fireman tied to a bed and a giant bug milking an enthralled bovine, her udders supplying an unceasing money shot. Like the rest of the film, this scene isn’t funny, fresh, or in possession of anything to say. It’s just another instance of cinematic masturbation in a film consisting of nothing else.
Happytime follows in the footsteps of Peter Jackson’s 1989 cult classic Meet the Feebles, a backstage satire of the Muppets replete with adultery, illegitimate children, attempted rape, and homicidal rage. But Henson’s bid for audience sympathy is inspired by fantastical neo-noirs like Blade Runner, Alien Nation, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit—films that use androids, extraterrestrials, and cartoons, respectively, as metaphors for a racial underclass while largely avoiding any real discussion about race. In Happytime, the puppets—often called socks by prejudiced humans—are presumed to be stupid, “uppity,” and happiest singing and dancing. Many live on Skid Row, selling sugar (their version of coke) or their bodies. The ones that assimilate into mainstream society, like Phil’s brother Larry (voiced by Victor Yerrid), a Happytime Gang alum, bleach their skin and reshape their noses into a human shape. The analogy is insulting for its broadness and for the emotional indifference with which puppet existence is dispatched. Felt lives don’t really matter here: Their explosions into bursts of cotton are played as much for laughs as they are individual tragedy. When a few hard-bitten cops are made queasy by a waterlogged puppet corpse, the joke is that those officers could possibly care enough to get nauseous.
As someone who once referred to the Muppets proper as “gaudy, unblinking rags,” I’ll admit the puppets here are delightfully expressive. Moving with the stiffness of a middle-aged man, Phil sports skeptical caterpillar-thick brows and a thinning, unkempt mop on his head. Fire-tressed femme fatale Sandra (Dorien Davies), a nymphomaniac seeking Phil’s help in a blackmail case, will forever face the world with a sad, wine-red pout and noticeable bags under her overly made-up, pingpong-ball eyes. The two cloth creatures certainly seem a lot more lively and fleshed-out than McCarthy’s Detective Connie Edwards, Phil’s former partner in the LAPD who got him kicked off the force years ago and made sure no puppet would ever wear a badge again.
Though she manages to produce a different snarl every time she’s asked to snap at Phil, McCarthy never convinces as a dirty cop, one whose nasty sugar habit distracts her from grappling with her all-consuming identity crisis over her transplanted felt liver. (She’s also saddled with having to make asshole-says-what jokes—an indignity that makes you wonder when she’s going to fire her agent each time they’re called back.) The film lays to rest both the whodunit and the question mark around Phil and Connie’s past relationship as somberly and dutifully as a pallbearer. If Henson wanted to reveal a side of puppets we’ve seldom seen before, he’s certainly succeeded: For all the movie’s attempts to offend, they’ve never been so dull.