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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Happytime Murders  (2018)
2½ Stars
Directed by Brian Henson.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Dorien Davies, Victor Yerrid, Drew Massey, Kevin Clash, Cynthy Wu, Michael McDonald, Mitch Silpa, Hemky Madera, Benjamin Cole Royer, Brekkan Spens, Ryan Tran, Fortune Feimster, Brian Henson, Allan Trautman, Brian Palermo, Ben Falcone.
2018 – 91 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, August 23, 2018.
Yes, the ridiculously bawdy, Muppets-on-acid "The Happytime Murders" includes a scene involving a cow being furiously milked in the backroom of XXX shop Vinny's Puppet Pleasureland, but the crux of the plot—a murder-mystery wherein the predominately puppet cast of '90s sitcom "The Happytime Gang" are being systematically bumped off—is treated surprisingly seriously. Scattershot though its profane, hard-R humor can be—plenty of physical gags and tart dialogue exchanges land, others stumble out of the gate—what helps to smooth out the film's uneven nature is just how involving Todd Berger's screenplay becomes as an investigative procedural. Director Brian Henson (1992's "The Muppet Christmas Carol"), son of the late Jim Henson, knows his way around this milieu, and he goes for broke melding the childlike cuteness of furry felt characters with a blush-worthy cavalcade of four-letter words and silly string-infused bodily fluids.

In an alternate reality where humans and puppets coexist, shamed-puppet-cop-turned-private-investigator Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) and sugar-addicted LAPD detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) begrudgingly team up to track down the culprit behind the title homicides. Phil and Connie's past together is contentious, to say the least; they were former partners until Connie was injured during a hold-up and Phil was fired for tragically missing his target (giving away any more details would wade into spoiler territory). As this unlikely duo comb across L.A., digging deeper into their investigation while moving closer to the truth, they begin to rekindle the professional chemistry they once had years again. Their reunion, it turns out, might be short-lived. When Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker) and Agent Campbell (Joel McHale) notice Phil has been spotted at the scene of each crime, he becomes the top suspect in the killings.

"The Happytime Murders" is the first release for Henson Alternative, an offshoot of The Jim Henson Company producing projects with more mature themes than is typically found in kid-friendly romps starring Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. It's safe to say this new brand has met its prerequisites with a lewdly goofy take on the erotic-thriller and buddy-cop subgenres. Strip away the spoofery—and brace yourselves for the "Basic Instinct"-inspired crotch reveal—and what is left is really rather compelling, a well-constructed whodunit also posing as a parable on racism. Citizens stuffed with fluff, you see, are marginalized in this version of society; "The Happytime Gang" was the first puppet-centric television series accepted by the mainstream, and puppets are no longer permitted on the police force, accused of not having what it takes to shoot other puppets. Seen from Phil and Connie's personal, evolving viewpoints, it is a provocative dichotomy reminding of similar themes found in 2016's "Zootopia."

The unsentimental yet still endearing heart of "The Happytime Murders" falls to Melissa McCarthy (2018's "Life of the Party") and Bill Barretta (2014's "Muppets Most Wanted"), making Connie and Phil's history together—their falling-out, their crude put-downs, and the ultimate rebuilding of their friendship—wholly convincing. Eventually, the viewer becomes blind to the fact that one of them is a blue-felted puppet, which seems to be the entire point. McCarthy, by now, is a proven big talent, and she once again is fearless in doing whatever it takes to get a laugh while still developing an identifiable character. Her interplay with Phil zings, as do her scenes with Maya Rudolph (2015's "Sisters"), a bubbly delight as Phil's faithful secretary Bubbles. Also turning up: Elizabeth Banks (2017's "Pitch Perfect 3"), welcome as always as Jenny Peterson, the sole human cast member from "The Happytime Gang"—and Phil's old flame.

There are times when "The Happytime Murders" threatens to feel like a series of sketches stitched together, but director Brian Henson ensures there is a driving force behind them, the narrative consistently unfolding and its characters moving forward. When they come, the reveal of the villain and the motives behind the murders have a sort of logical symmetry. Opinions will no doubt be split on the picture as a whole: some audiences will not take to its oddball, over-the-top, at times brutal nature, but rest assured a cult following is destined for its future. How could it not? "The Happytime Murders" doesn't match the unequivocal success of 2016's "Sausage Party," another R-rated twist on would-be family fare, but it exists in the same realm, a freshly imagined dark comedy with more on its mind than dirty jokes.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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