There’s something very interesting at play in Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders, which is really more a temper tantrum than a movie. The son of the beloved Jim Henson, the trailblazer who created the Muppets, is in a rebellious state of mind, as he seems intent on crapping all over his father’s work. While steps have been taken not to refer to the felt performers that populate the film as Muppets to avoid any confusion with the beloved characters that populate Sesame Street (they’re just “puppets”), there’s no question that the characters in Happytime are his father’s creations and Henson goes out of his way to defile them at every turn.
Take a story from the Raymond Chandler canon, update it and populate it with characters manipulated by hand and you have some notion of the film’s plot, such as it is. Phil Philips (voice by Bill Barretta) is a puppet with a chip on his shoulder. The one and only puppet to be hired by the Los Angeles Police has been trying to live down a tragic incident for years, one that got him thrown off the force. Now a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking private eye, he’s been pulled in by the LAPD to help investigate a string of murders. The cast members of the hit television show The Happytime Gang are being killed off one by one and no one seems to know why. It falls to Philips to solve the case, which is further complicated by his being paired with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).
With a little wit and some style (visually, this is the drabbest movie in recent memory), this might have been an engaging spoof, a riff on the established Muppet Universe that could have been enjoyed by fans old and new. No such luck, as the script by Todd Berger is simply a collection of crude, unimaginative moments intent on shocking the audience; likely the only response will be one of disbelief over how miscalculated this effort truly is. Puppets’ heads are blown off with shotguns – fluff flying everywhere – puppet porn is on display, as well as full on puppet-on-puppet sex. If that’s not bad enough, one scene features our felt hero ejaculating again and again to the point that his office is covered in puppet semen.
Now, I’m no prude and none of this was shocking to me. However, the sheer stupidity that’s on display is appalling in its banality and lack of imagination. Not once did I laugh, though my mouth was agape most of the time at disbelief over what I was forced to endure over the 91 of the most excruciating minutes I’ve had to spend in a movie theater. Dumb, crass and spiteful, this isn’t a movie; it’s a teenager’s first therapy session on full display.
The film is a disaster on every level and I couldn’t help but think that Henson was giving his father the finger all the way through, as a sense of resentment radiates in waves from off the screen. Petulant to a fault, what’s on display is a son’s bitter resentment over not being able to emerge from his father’s shadow. Henson seems to have a sense of long suppressed jealousy over not having been able to break new ground as his father did and instead of cherishing and honoring that legacy, he seems intent on trashing it. More than anything, Happytime proves that those dealing with daddy-issues and a mid-life crisis shouldn’t be allowed behind a movie camera.