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Profane puppetry - ‘The Happytime Murders’

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I’ve always loved the Muppets. From their anarchic weirdo beginnings through every family-friendly iteration that followed, I was all in on Jim Henson’s fuzzy felted creations … though I always had a stronger connection to their darker side, whether it was overt or subtly lingering just beneath the surface.

“The Happytime Murders,” produced by Henson Alternative, the adult-oriented arm of the company, is very much connected to that darker side. Oh, and it’s definitely overt – this movie is a lot of things, but subtle is not one of them. Brian Henson, son of the legendary puppeteer, directs from a screenplay by Todd Berger.

It’s a comic noir vision of a world in which puppets and humans exist side by side, packed with foul language and incessant innuendo. It is a film that revels in its tastelessness, unafraid to get down and really wallow in the mire. It is coarse and crass and not for everyone.

As you might have guessed, I dug it.

Phil Phillips (veteran Muppet performer Bill Barretta) is a hard-drinking, hard-thinking private investigator in Los Angeles, with a small office and a hardworking assistant named Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, “Life of the Party”). He’s also a puppet, one of the many living alongside (and being discriminated against by) humans. He was the first-ever puppet cop, but a tragic incident involving an innocent bystander led to his then-partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy, “Life of the Party”) testifying against him and getting him kicked off the force.

Circumstances bring the two of them together again, however. Phil is hired by puppet femme fatale Sandra (Dorien Davies, “Boy Band”) to investigate a blackmail scheme. Instead, he stumbles onto what appears to be a plot to take out the cast members of a beloved 1990s sitcom called “The Happytime Gang,” the first show to successfully cross over between puppet and human audiences.

All of the cast members – Bumblypants and Coach Lyle (both voiced by Kevin Clash), Cara (Colleen Smith) and Ezra (Ted Michaels), Goofer (Drew Massey) and Phil’s brother Larry Shenanigans (Victor Yerrid), not to mention human cast member – and Phil’s former girlfriend – Jenny (Elizabeth Banks, “Pitch Perfect 3”) – have fallen on some form of hard times, sinking into the seedier aspects of the city.

And someone is stalking them.

Philips and Edwards are forced back into their partnership by Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker, “Fallen Stars”) and begrudgingly agree to work together in an effort to catch the bad guy. Even when the feds show up, led by Agent Campbell (Joel McHale, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture”) and his suspicions about who might REALLY behind this all, the two of them show that despite their differences, they’ve always been a great team.

But will it be enough to save the Happytime Gang?

“The Happytime Murders” isn’t just adult-oriented. It is VERY adult-oriented; the air is blue with ever-present curse words and damp with puppet sex. Simply put – it’s filthy. Is it TOO filthy? For some, almost certainly. And the argument can definitely be made that some degree of depth in both narrative and characterization is sacrificed in the interest of amplifying the grossness of it all.

Doesn’t bother me a lick.

Here’s the thing – “The Happytime Murders” gave me a low-pressure good time. Was there a lot more that could have been done with the subversive nature of the concept and the quality of the cast (both human and puppet)? Absolutely. There’s no doubt that Brian Henson and company left something on the table when it comes to what this movie could have been.

Hell, just in the world that they’ve created – one seemingly inspired by (some might say derivative of) a classic like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” – there’s a lot to love. The light and dark sides of a place where puppets walked among us are rendered clearly; there’s a ton of ways in which such a world could be explored … and this movie has limited itself.

So what? I didn’t go to “The Happytime Murders” for great art. I went to see puppets drop f-bombs and fight and have sex and do drugs. Sure, that’s kind of low-hanging fruit, but I don’t care. I went to laugh. And laugh I did. Maybe I didn’t always feel super great about laughing, but I laughed. There were plenty of moments that were off-putting and over the top, but movies like this are always a bit of a numbers game: you throw out as many jokes as you can as fast as you can and see what sticks. Berger as a screenwriter subscribes to the attitude of “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” and really tries to fill it up.

McCarthy is in full McCarthy mode in this one; broad and loud, throwing herself around with her usual abandon. She does good work in establishing something of a connection with Phil, despite his being, you know, a puppet. Rudolph and Banks are both in it to win it, delivering spirited and silly performances. McHale jerks it up. And the puppeteers/voice actors are universally strong; these folks are the best in the world at what they do and it shows in every frame.

“The Happytime Murders” shouldn’t be judged by what it isn’t, but by what it is. It is a weird, goofy, dirty-as-heck comedy. It is unabashedly silly and unapologetically foul. It is broad and base and is content to aim low. And if you’ve got a certain sort of sense of humor, it is a whole lot of fun.

[4 out of 5]

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