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Brian Henson — son of Muppets creator Jim — is trying to break new ground with his new movie, The Happytime Murders. It’s a comedy noir that shows the seedy underbelly of the puppet world, a gimmick that’s been tried before in projects like Avenue Q, but do Henson and a cast including Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale find a way to keep it fresh? Now that the reviews are out, potential audiences can find out for themselves what the critics think of the film centering on a puppet private investigator named Phil (Bill Barretta).
In what might be the most positive of all the reviews, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Frank Scheck describes the film as “more than funny enough, packing lots of genuine, if frequently tasteless, laughs into its relatively brief running time. He adds, “The Happytime Murders is hardly sophisticated comic entertainment. It’s coarse, crude and vulgar and threatens to wear out its welcome despite its brevity. But if you don’t find it uproariously funny at times, you must be made of cloth.”
As it turned out, a lot of other critics disagree. Even The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who admits to finding the feature worthwhile overall, writes that star McCarthy “and the other non-inanimate actors — mainly Ms. Banks, Maya Rudolph and Leslie David Baker — get to do a bit of silly riffing, but it’s mostly tired, bloodless stuff. He adds, “The plot should be an excuse for comic invention, but it mostly just gets in the way, which makes me think that a feature film isn’t really what Phil and his ilk need or deserve. Like their mainstream Muppet brethren, they might be more at home on smaller screeners, in shorter bits. No disrespect.”
So, what is the problem? Todd Gilchrist of Nerdist has a theory. “Irrespective of the fact that Peter Jackson paid satirical tribute to Jim Henson almost 30 years ago with his misanthropic cult film Meet the Feebles, Brian’s puppets smoke and swear and have sex and do drugs, but so much of it seems driven by the urge to shock rather than tell a story,” he suggests. “Ultimately, The Happytime Murders feels like half of two good ideas that don’t add up to a whole, undermining the core of a world that’s genuinely interesting by focusing too heavily on its fuzzy, raunchy edges.”
And, boy, it turns out that plenty of critics agree that the two halves don’t add up to a whole.
“The Happytime Murders is a poorly paced, visually bland R-rated comedy that has a lot of ideas, none of which ever come together,” complains io9’s Germain Lussier. “It’s built around a great idea — a dirty detective comedy for adults starring both puppets and humans — but outside of a few big laughs, it disappoints on almost every level.”
“Not a single bit lands in The Happytime Murders,” writes Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair. “McCarthy sometimes comes close, as does Rudolph — but what surrounds them is so aggressively, lamely crass that it would take a true Herculean effort to elevate anything in the film to laugh-worthy. And so, one must sit through The Happytime Murders in rigid silence, as puppets are killed and groped and seduced and exploited to the point that I started to feel bad for them, before remembering that none of it was real and nobody had to make this if they didn’t want to.”
CNN‘s Brian Lowry is no less critical, writing “It’s hard to overemphasize the extent to which the puerile humor yields diminishing returns, as the filmmakers (Henson and writer Todd Berger) hammer away at dirty-puppet jokes to the point of wearing holes in them.” Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty describes the movie as “a botched experiment that inexplicably wastes a profanity-spewing Melissa McCarthy and is hobbled by a lead character (chain-smoking puppet PI Phil Phillips) who resembles Guy Smiley crossed with Jerry Orbach and whose deadpan monotone (provided by Bill Barretta) is likely to put you to sleep.”
Perhaps most damning is the suggestion made by Charles Bramesco of The Guardian that the movie is, at heart, not even entertainingly bad. “Perhaps all of this dysfunction might approach the so-bad-its-good realm of morbid curiosity, if not for the half-baked bid at racial commentary fleetingly suggested in the first act and abandoned within the first hour. (The allegorical leanings of Bright have never looked so tactful.)” he notes. “Or maybe it’s the questionable mechanics of the grand scheme, revealed in the denouement to make nary a lick of sense. Or maybe it’s just that the film is brutally, oppressively, exhaustingly unfunny. Except, that is, to viewers who find octopus-on-cow octuple-handjob money shots humorous. They are in luck.”
If all of this sounds overwhelmingly disappointing, let’s turn to ScreenCrush’s E. Oliver Whitney for a worryingly apt analogy: “The Happytime Murders is like that guy who gets too wasted too early at the party, taking things to an 11 when everyone else is comfortably tipsy at a seven,” they write. “It’s as if a group of puppeteers who’ve been forced to stymie their horn-dog sense of humor for years are finally free to shout every crude joke at the top of their lungs all at once.”
IGN‘s William Bibbiani was more positive in his assessment: “In short, Brian Henson didn’t knock it out of the park, but he made his point. The exceptional puppeteering and mostly clever screenplay make a statement, and more or less prove that the artists behind The Happytime Murders are skilled craftspeople whose talents aren’t being appreciated or utilized nearly enough. They are mature, even though their jokes are frequently immature as all hell.”
The Happytime Murders is in theaters Friday.
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