The Movie Guru: Melissa McCarthy excellent in the strange, surprisingly entertaining “The Happytime Murders”
The Movie Guru
“The Happytime Murders” is one of the most unique, surprisingly entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long time. The problem is, I have absolutely no idea who’s going to want to go see it.
The trailers make the movie seem like “Sausage Party” with puppets, but the truth behind the latest offering from director Brian Henson (the son of Jim Henson) is much, much weirder than that. The soul of “The Happytime Murders” is the kind of bloody action-noir that feels like “L.A. Confidential” mixed with “Lethal Weapon.” There are sexpot dames, tough-guy voiceovers, former partners with a grudge against each other, a series of surprisingly violent murders and double-crosses as far as the eye can see. There’s also a ton of wisecracks, a faithful secretary, at least one surprisingly cool fight scene and a ton of raunchiness. If this starred Bruce Willis, then no one would bat an eye.
But, instead of Bruce Willis, there are puppets. Lots and lots of puppets.
The most surreal thing about the puppets (I have to be careful not to use the m-word, or Disney will come after me) is how quickly they stop being weird. Henson and screenwriter Todd Berger start the movie with a surprising amount of world-building, painting puppets as second-class citizens who face a lot of abuse. Our hero is a former puppet cop who turned private detective after an incident that got him kicked off the force. When a sexpot client drags him into the middle of a series of murders, he’s forced to team up with the former partner who got him kicked off the force in the first place. Can they figure out who’s behind the killings, or will the murderer turn the tables on them?
The movie takes all of this completely seriously, even as it squeezes in a ton of laughs. There are a ton of puppet in-jokes, some of which are incredibly raunchy (even thinking of silly string can still make me giggle). The cleverest ones manage to deliver a ton of laughs without turning the movie into a parody, a delicate balancing act of humor that seems more graceful than anything else in the movie.
Then there’s the pure raunch, which is rendered so weird by the puppet setting that it at least has a novelty factor to it. Far more familiar is the particular vein of grizzled action movie humor, the kind of one-liner that is almost exclusively delivered by tough, world-weary characters who are still holding guns.
McCarthy is fantastic, playing the ex-partner with such panache that I now seriously want to see the woman in a legitimate action movie. Bill Barretta, most familiar as the voice of Pepe the King Prawn in several of the recent Muppets movies, had the world-weary noir voice down pat as the lead puppet Phil Phillips. Maya Rudolph was surprisingly sweet and not too ditzy as his faithful secretary Bubbles.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, then go watch the movie. Something this odd that still manages to be entertaining deserves all of the attention it can get.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.