The Muppets have been around for a very long time, brightening the moods of both children and adults. The sense of whimsy, education and absurdity that Jim Henson brought to his creation spoke to generations of fans. The kids liked them because they were fuzzy and cute, the adults liked them because there was an underlying maturity to them. But sometime after Henson’s death in 1990, people seemed to lose touch with the Muppets. They were still around, mostly appearing in the retelling of famous stories like A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island (and of course Sesame Street, which will live on forever, as it should), but they slowly became irrelevant. In 2011, the Muppets started to make a comeback with Jason Segel’s The Muppets, and have slowly been earning their stripes back under the leadership of Henson’s son, Brian, who to his credit continues to try new things to reinvigorate the brand. Through his newest venture, Henson Alternative, Henson brings us The Happytime Murders, a seedy look at the dark secrets behind the Muppets who aren’t famous like Kermit the Frog.
Phil Philips (performed by Bill Barretta) is a private detective who was kicked off the police force after accidentally killing a felted civilian during a hostage crisis, which also led to the banning of any Muppets from becoming a cop. His newest case as a PI comes from a mysterious femme-fatale named Sandra (performed by Dorian Davies), who wants to hire Phil to track down a stalker sending her threatening letters. Opening this case leads Phil to a Muppet porn shop where he witnesses a multiple homicide.
Enter Melissa McCarthy as Connie Edwards, Phil’s loud-mouthed ex-partner. Because of what happened that fateful night, Phil and Edwards basically wish each other dead, but because of the murders, they will need to put all of their differences aside and team up to solve the case. After Phil’s famous brother is killed in one of the more interesting death sequences, Phil puts it together that someone is killing the actors of an old television show known as “The Happytime Gang.”
This whole scenario is right out of an old noir film, complete with fatigued voice-over, however, the whole thing feels far too light for its own good. I’m not sure if it’s because of the collection of Muppets or because Henson doesn’t make the film gritty enough — or a combination of both — but Henson never finds a way out of his usual aesthetic, keeping the cinematography bright and lively while attempting to please all audiences rather than going as gritty and dirty as the script, written by Todd Berger, envisions.
For example, throughout the film, we’re introduced to several characters who use different types of sugar as their drug of choice. It’s a great idea that opens the door for some terrific moments, including when one of the actors from the show becomes an addict, wasting away his life in a crack-house shoving all the sugar he can get up his nose. The scene when Edwards visits this character could have been sharp and witty, and showcased the truth behind the underbelly of sugar and its harrowing effects. Instead Henson goes for the cheap gags about homosexual tendencies and urine, which play as well as a three-year-old learning to play the drums.
The casting and overall direction doesn’t go as far as it could, either. There are plenty of good actors here, including Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale and Maya Rudolph, however, some of them don’t fit what this film should have been. If you think of a typical Muppet movie, the performances by the live actors generally have a goofy playfulness about them, playing down to the level of the personalities of the Muppets. But when that playfulness is transferred over into a R-rated film, it doesn’t play the same way.
McCarthy is a great a example. There’s nothing wrong with her performance here… if it was in a family-friendly Muppet film. Had she played the film straight, as if the Muppets were live humans instead of piles of cotton and felt, this would have helped give the film the level of authenticity it was missing and allowed the comedy to come naturally through the performances rather than the sight gags.
I can’t put all of the blame on Henson, though, as the writing itself isn’t strong enough either. The plot isn’t as carefully crafted as the filmmakers would like you to think, the killer’s motives, while good, are flimsy in their execution, the jokes mostly land with the thud of an anvil on Daffy Duck, and several things that don’t quite hit the way they should, like the reappearance of a character that gets no explanation for their miraculous return, nor for their true, unresolved motive.
When I first saw the trailer for The Happytime Murders, I thought it could go one of two ways: either it would be absurdist fun or it would be disturbingly awful. After seeing the film, it turns out it’s neither. Not dark or gritty enough to be noir, not funny enough to be a comedy, not exciting enough to be action, not muppety enough to be the Muppets. It sits in a strange pocket somewhere where you aren’t quite sure what you’re watching while you’re watching it, at times curious, at others a little dirty, and by the end, you’re left with nothing but an empty feeling of “meh.”
My Grade: B-
The third film revolving around dogs in as many weeks, A-X-L embodies a typical boy meets dog story line, but because the dog in question is a military-sanctioned robot weapon that accidentally “pairs” with a kid, the story finds a clever way to utilize the usual tropes while remaining as heartfelt and genuine as any great friendship-based film. A-
As harrowing as the events behind the true story of Papillon are, the film never quite captures the depth of what Henri Charrière, a theif arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, went through during his stay, and subsequent escape attempts, at a French penal colony. B
Next week, new movies include Kin and Searching. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.