Melissa McCarthys latest film came with a lot of promise – an r-rated comedy featuring puppets doing things that would get them kicked out of Sesame Street. Even the lawsuit from the company, accusing the film of trading off of the name of Big Bird and friends, only gave the film extra credibility and exposure.
In short, everything was in place for a hit in the mould of Team America: World Police or Sausage Party. What we got was one of the bigger disappointments of the year.
McCarthy plays a human detective living in a world where we co-exist with puppets, with the latter being reviled and outcast from society. Her former partner, a puppet named Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) who now works as a private detective, reluctantly agrees to help her investigate the mysterious deaths of the cast of beloved TV show The Happytime Gang.
Its probably best to not dwell too much on the plot, as the movie certainly doesnt. The focus is instead on a cavalcade of rude, often offensive humour and jokes that will have people guffawing or gasping depending on where you draw the line. Too much is made of repeated scenes of puppets taking drugs (or snorting sugar, which makes the whole thing infantile), or jokes about puppet incest. The much hyped sex scenes, rather than being delightfully ridiculous, just feels a bit unpleasant.
What the film fails to realise is that grotesque humour has a place on screen, provided theres something behind the grossness to justify it. For all of Sausage Partys food sex and weed gags, there was a surprisingly deep discussion about religion. Team America was a pastiche of Michael Bay action films and overzealous US patriotism, that also happened to be peppered with naughty words.
In both instances, the premise of the film was a way of sneaking something deeper in. Here, theres nothing beyond the concept of what if Muppets swore and watched porn?. Its occasional spoofing of buddy cop comedies aside, there just isnt a lot going on.
Whats perhaps most incredible is that the film is directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim and director of the fondly remembered Muppet Christmas Carol. Its hard to believe that a film maker trained by a company who specialises in weaving messages into silliness could miss the mark so widely.
McCarthy at least does her part, forging a believable (if not that interesting) partnership with her felt counterpart, throwing herself into the madness and coming out the other side relatively unscathed. Fellow non-puppets Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph also make a good impression, if only because it takes us away from the grim depths to which the story plummets.
In the end, The Happytime Murders offers whats in the trailer, and very little else.
That may not sound too bad, but this type needs something behind the vulgarity, something the film fails to do as it simply relies on puppets doing rude stuff for an hour and a half. There have been been worse films out this year, but few with as much wasted potential.
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