On bodily fluids, doing your homework, and the shallow noir stylings of The Happytime Murders
The Happytime Murders STX Entertainment
Director: Brian Henson
Screenplay: Todd Berger
Starring: Bill Barretta, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks, Dorien Davies and Joel McHale
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes / 2.39:1
August 24, 2018
(out of four)
The Happytime Murders is a noir send-up that has gotten most of its information about noir not from actual noir but from other send-ups of noir. Its closest companion, at least in theory, is Who Framed Roger Rabbit - with puppets instead of toons. But Robert Zemeckis' 1988 masterpiece knew noir inside and out - its rhythms and its history, not just the superficial bullet points long ago ingested into our commonplace pop-culture vernacular. Happytime's genre styling is only those bullet points, as if its creators sat in a bar and overheard an overlapping jumble of commercials and comedy sketches based on old detective movies, mistook it for the real thing, then tried to regurgitate it from memory.
The depressed ex-cop who made a tragic mistake and now makes a living as a low-rent private dick. The ex-cop's resentful ex-partner. The ex-cop's compassionate but embittered ex-lover. The femme fatale who shows up unannounced at the ex-cop's office drenched in mystery and sex appeal. The case that brings past and present together. The ex-cop's whiskey-soaked voiceover that sardonically puts it all in perspective. (His.) Happytime knows those conventions only emblematically, and is thus only capable of delivering vague hard-boiled impressions instead of the precision the experiment requires.
I'm not convinced director Brian Henson or writer Todd Berger have actually seen any of the movies that are their ostensible source material - or if they have, I'm not convinced they understood them. It's like when someone makes a silent-era homage and it features a damsel tied to train tracks, making clear that its makers have never actually seen silent movies, but are simply repeating what they've heard, second- or third-hand, silent movies are like. Doing your homework pays off. Even if Henson and Berger did theirs, they certainly didn't show their work.
The other key point of comparison is Trey Parker and Matt Stone's marionette epic Team America: World Police, its jingoistic blockbuster template replaced by Happytime's contemporary noir. It's not just the puppets but the unwavering commitment to obscenity in such a fundamentally innocent form. That this also sacrifices the elegance of noir innuendo is a discussion for another time, I suppose; I certainly can't object to an attempt to make what amounts to a grindhouse Muppet movie. Especially from a genuine Henson.
But it's the execution - which is not just bad, but desperate. In one scene that it is immensely proud of, Happytime tries to do for silly-string jism what Team America did for pea-soup vomit, combined with the intended shock value of the latter's puppet sex montage. I appreciate the willingness to go there - and even one of the scene's framing choices - but mostly it comes off as a half-baked porn parody instead of a gag that makes pointed use of the specific components of the scene. It's designed to be one of those jokes that gets funnier precisely because of how long it goes on - again, Gary Johnston's alleyway vomiting is the best analogue, right down to the rhythm - but Henson can't pull it off, in large part because of the way he alters the visual presentation of the joke mid-scene. What begins as clever - the sex act taking place in an adjacent room, heard but not seen, and then seen only from the outside through an opaque office door as a team of cops and a secretary awkwardly listen and wait it out - can't land the punchline. The shift in location - and to a more blandly straightforward shot - eliminates what was amusing about the moment and replaces it with an act of comic desperation. That our hero keeps going and going and going (and going) is innately funny only up to a point; the rest is on the filmmakers to land it. They do not.
That this is one of the film's better scenes is a sad indictment. Mostly, Happytime sluggishly goes through the motions without really ever getting - or asking - why those motions work the way they do. There's no fun in a genre pastiche if you're not willing or able to play with it or pick it apart. In fact, the film's best noir joke is an unintended one: The protagonist is played by voice actor/puppeteer Bill Barretta - a comically perfect name for a hard-boiled homage like this one. His character being named something as comparatively dull as Phil Phillips seems like accidental self-criticism. If anything, hiring a performer named Bill Barretta should raise your character-naming game. Phil Phillips? That would be like hiring Ice Cube to star in a snowy Icelandic action-thriller and naming his character, like, Chad Smith.
Even putting aside the noir-pastiche failings, I kept waiting in vain for the film to make use of its collision between human and puppet worlds, human and puppet logic. And while there's a decent sight gag here and there, as a whole the movie comes across like a five-minute sketch that never fleshed itself out into a feature-length concept. The pieces are never anything but pieces. Phil Phillips is hired by Sandra White (Dorien Davies) to investigate a standard-issue blackmailing case that eventually devolves into a series of murders, with the cast of an old TV show called The Happytime Gang - which is coincidentally about to close a lucrative syndication deal - getting picked off one by one. Once the police get involved, Phil has to join forces with his ex-partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and together the two have to contend with a pompous but aloof FBI agent named Campbell (Joel McHale). Every lead leads to an old friend and a new body.
Years back, Chappelle's Show aired its Kneehigh Park sketch, a brilliant Sesame Street parody that used its Muppet-like puppets to teach kids about drugs, sex, and STDs. If only The Happytime Murders used its combination of the lurid and the innocent with the same sense of purpose. Or any. This is a movie that never figures out what is funny about its own premise, let alone why. Seedy grown-up noir and nostalgic puppet shows are such deliberate choices. And yet the filmmakers have little to no idea why they made them, or what they want to say.