Thursday 30 August 2018

The Happytime Murders (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Private investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a former member of the Los Angeles police department, has to deal with a lot of prejudice from the humans in the neighbourhood. However, he will need to put that aside and team up with his former partner Det. Connie (Melissa McCarthy) to track down a murderer who appears to be targeting the retired cast of 90's puppet sitcom 'The Happytime Gang'.

Barretta is damn good as our lead, rather obvious Sam Spade impression notwithstanding, giving the character a suitably gruff and withered timbre that makes everything from his cheesy voice-over narration to his not-so-subtle jabs at the humans around him ring true. McCarthy may be stuck with a few too many tomboy jokes to sit completely well here, but as the aggressive, drug-addled and racist police officer, it’s a character that fits McCarthy’s more vulgar tendencies quite nicely.
Maya Rudolph (must be a package deal with McCarthy by this point), fits into her noir archetype well enough, in this case the bubbly secretary to our grizzled private eye, and Joel McHale as a commandeering FBI agent largely exists as the brunt of occasionally-cringey jokes, something he handles as well as can be expected. Elizabeth Banks as the token human member of The Happytime Gang is good enough, if nothing all that special, Leslie David Baker as the police lieutenant hits that note adequately, and the myriad of puppeteers behind the fuzzier members of the cast all do very well at bringing this rather oddball world to life.

Which brings us to the technical side of things, and quite frankly, this is a pretty solid effort given both the pedigree of the Jim Henson Company and the rather ambitious goal of the production at large. Sure, the idea of combining human and puppet acting isn’t anything new for the Hensons, but considering the tone this time around, it ticks all the boxes required. The puppets hold up to the Muppet standard for character design, with a lot of natural-looking movement afforded them by the hands behind the scenes. 
Not only that, the merging of the ‘ordinary’ human environment and the inclusion of said puppets is remarkably smooth, avoiding a lot of the pitfalls that the similarly racially-tinged Bright made in its world-building by keeping things vague enough to avoid the bigger plot holes, but detailed enough so that their coexistence makes sense. From the second-class citizen status of the puppets to the seedier underbelly of their work to even a few nods to real-world racial mindsets (the scene with Phil arguing with his older brother about having his skin bleached and being fitted with a more human-looking nose cuts surprisingly close to the bone), the attempt at allegory holds true here.

Of course, selling the darker tone of this compared to most other Henson productions is a bit of a mixed bag. The dialogue courtesy of Todd Berger (and the doubtless improvisation occurring on-set) hits more blue territory without it feeling like it’s derailing its own plot just to get to the jokes, and with the inclusion of sugar as the puppet drug of choice, it feels like some use is being made out of the premise. However, there is still a sense that it isn’t going far enough, even considering how graphic it can get. An early scene features what is described in-film as “an eight-handed reach-around” involving some of the puppets, and while it is certainly an easy grab for shock value, the film ends up milking it a little too much over time. It makes for the most graphic moment of the story, whereas the majority of what we see isn’t all that grotesque.

After the sacred cow slaughter of Sausage Party, it’s been made abundantly clear that filmmakers can show just about anything through the veneer of non-human characters. We get some of that dissonance regarding ‘puppets are people too’, which makes some of the death scenes a bit unnerving, but… let’s just say that few things are worse to see than someone who thinks they’re being a lot more “triggering” than they actually are.

But that is honestly not the biggest issue here: The attempts at shock comedy can be trite in places, but overall, it balances out with the intermittently clever race allegories. No, the problem comes with how this story is on its own, as a piece of black comedy film noir. Director Brian Henson, son of Jim himself, has a pretty solid history to his name; this is the same guy who gave us both The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. If there’s one thing he can do well, it’s remixing older stories with that Muppet brand of irreverence.

However, this story simply isn’t remixed nearly enough. It has traces of Bright with a few sprinkles of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in its use of non-human characters, a bit of Avenue Q in its attempts at subversion of the once-innocuous puppets, maybe a more mainstream-friendly serving of Meet The Feebles, but the big reference point? Pretty much any crime film you have ever seen, doubly so for film noir. This sticks so closely to the clich├ęs of the genre, from the disgraced detective to the femme fatales to the obvious set-ups; this is so beat-for-beat that it’s a little embarrassing, not to mention tedious when it comes to watching this rather predictable crime caper unfold. The production components may make it easier to sit through than it would be otherwise, but it still feels like a fuzzy re-skin of an older story that could have been told far better than what we got here. I mean, when your film has some genuinely clever moments to its name, the plot as a whole should fare better than it does here.

All in all, it’s a fun if obviously derivative ride. The acting is solid, both from the physical human actors and the puppeteers, the design of the puppets and their environment gives the world-building here a decent push in the right direction, and while the story is cobbled together from all-too-familiar parts, there’s still quite a few moments where this attempt at allegory for racial discrimination rings true. A little oddly, since we get that odd disconnect of the white McCarthy and Barretta discussing racism to the black police lieutenant, but true nonetheless. At any rate, when it comes to being a sleazier kind of puppet story, it fares a hell of a lot better than Nightmare On Elmo’s Street.

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