'Happytime Murders' and When a Joke Doesn't Go Far Enough

Happytime Murders_Who Framed Roger Rabbit_Split - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of STX Entertainment; Courtesy of Photofest
The raunchy puppet movie is reminiscent of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit,' but doesn't have the effortless feel of the 30-year-old film about an animated rabbit.

We’re just two months removed from celebrating the 30th anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a truly wonderful fusion of outrageous comedy and old-fashioned film noir with a very unique high-concept premise. The film posits a world in which humans and animated characters, dubbed Toons, live side by side. This weekend, we’re getting The Happytime Murders, a new movie that puts humans and puppets, another type of kid-friendly character, side by side, but certainly not in harmony. If anything, The Happytime Murders proves exactly how much of a high-wire act Who Framed Roger Rabbit was, and how hard it is to replicate that success.

There are some surface-level connections between the two films, which are sometimes hard to ignore, to the new film’s detriment. In both films, the lead character is a hard-boiled private investigator who used to be a detective in the LAPD before a tragedy. In both films, a human and a nonhuman character are paired together despite not always getting along. In both films, the nonhuman characters indulge in very non-kid-friendly activities like sex and drugs. The Happytime Murders spends far too little time in establishing how this world works, only causing more confusion.

Some of the examples are extreme — like the cow puppet that orgasms actual milk but doesn’t seem to bleed. Some are more key to the story, despite making no sense. For example, the lead human character, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), lives with a puppet liver due to a previous accident in the line of fire. It’s an idea that might have worked, if it didn’t seem hard to imagine how a liver that would fit in the body of a puppet could possibly operate as a human organ. McCarthy has fun with the twist that Connie’s puppet liver makes her treat sugar like it’s cocaine, but it’s still hard to reconcile that with any internal logic.

Perhaps the most baffling and wrongheaded decision The Happytime Murders makes — one that Who Framed Roger Rabbit sidestepped, in part just by being released in the 1980s — is choosing to equate its puppet characters with real-life minority groups. From the beginning, we see puppets being treated poorly by many humans; part of the film’s setup involves puppet actors from an old TV show being murdered one by one, in spite of that show apparently being the first time humans accepted puppets. Humans talk about the puppet characters as if they’re inferior, and condescendingly refer to the color of their felt design as if it’s skin color. Leaving aside the reality that The Happytime Murders just isn’t very funny, trying to draw a straight line between puppets and actual humans is painful to behold.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is at its strongest in the same way that The Happytime Murders is at its weakest: making you care about the relationship between a human and a nonhuman character. Eddie Valiant’s bond with Roger Rabbit shouldn’t work — it’s a human interacting with an animated character with a heavy lisp — but in part because of the stunning effects and Bob Hoskins’ deft and emotional performance, it all comes together. While McCarthy tries very hard — and comes away with the only handful of moments that are remotely funny — she’s working with a script that doesn’t make Connie Edwards’ frustration with her old partner, protagonist Phil Philips, into something that resonates beyond juvenile and unnecessarily profane one-liners.

And Phil, who narrates the film as if he’s meant to be a Muppety Humphrey Bogart, has enough similarities with Eddie Valiant as opposed to being a fully realized character. When Phil says he’s going to get drunk and reminisce about his past, it’s just a reminder of how Roger Rabbit shows Eddie...getting drunk and reminiscing about his past in slicker fashion. Roger Rabbit in general is a film that feels slicker, both in the way it’s conceived and in the writing. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard, or that it’s desperate. The Happytime Murders, on the other hand, feels very desperate and is constantly working overtime to sell the most immature and lazy jokes possible. (The gag depicted in the R-rated trailer where Phil ejaculates a mountain of Silly String is agonizing to watch as part of the whole film.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a new movie taking its inspiration from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Frankly, if you’re going to crib from a movie, you might as well crib from a classic. The Happytime Murders has an excellent cast, and the many puppeteers working just out of the view of the camera were clearly dealing with some heavy challenges. But a great and hard-working cast doesn’t make a good movie. The problem with The Happytime Murders taking its inspiration from Who Framed Roger Rabbit: it never goes beyond being very obvious about its connection to the 1988 film. All it does is remind you that the 1988 film did all of this much better.