The Happytime Murders
While discussing around the water cooler, I blushed while describing a scene from this movie. I heard my first dirty joke from my grandmother. I played rugby in college. Even so, HA Studio (Henson Alternative) has created a masterpiece of hilarity and smutty velvet hand puppets that set me on my heels a few times. The humor is dirty, profane and violent, with some scenes nearly too fluffy to watch. Both of the carrot jokes are masterful.
Set in a circa 1970s NYC-like city, puppets are fully integrated into society but face massive and insidious prejudice at every turn. Even the HA Studio blurb lists the lead characters as, “one human (Melissa McCarthy) and one puppet”, leaving the puppet unnamed even though his is the larger role. His name is Phil Phillip, a Phillip Marlowe-style muppet voiced by Bill Barretta, with every dick thing those characters possessed: he’s a hard-bitten cynic with a run-down office staffed by an adoring but batty secretary (Maya Rudolph), a tragic backstory and droll voice over. Things take a downturn after he meets a new client, a femme fatale who introduces herself, “I’m a sexual IMA. If I’m near it IMA gonna fuck it.”
Hard boiled detective movie tropes abound, like overblown cigarette smoke, telling backstory with a few well placed newspaper articles, and unexpectedly deep lines like, “Never knocked a guy out with his own balls before.” The real genius is melding this ancient – in movie years – genre with one so different as muppets. We’re conditioned after the last forty years to accept them as real characters, so that isn’t such a stretch, but the wonderful versatility of muppets adds a depth to the story. Beyond the basics of visual clues to a character’s nature there are jokes can never be made with a human actor and a character arc you’re never going to find anywhere else. These muppets have a different look than anything writer/director/actor Brian Henson’s dad Jim ever put on screen. They may move the same and are crafted from the same materials, but there’s a hard bitten edge to most of them, and sometimes true ugliness.
Some of the wardrobe choices were inspired, one of them an eye-splitting black and white mix of plaid, stripes and checks, another a pure white ensemble worn by the femme fatale that actually caused me to remark to my wife how cute it was. That is a neat trick.
The weakest part of the film was the soundtrack. I think they were trying for a mix of tough noir music with a strong beat and classic themes blended with something a muppet might hum or sing in a Henson movie. What happened, though, is that it wasn’t hummable, and it wasn’t tough enough, like trying for a driving guitar without a bass beneath it. The cigarette smoke blowing gags were funny, but done often enough to lessen the humor. Some of the muppet-based world building was a little off as well, for example when a muppet makes fun of the people beating him saying he can’t feel it but then later screams fluffy murder when he’s shot.
The weaker parts are so inconsequential that I don’t consider them even a little bit of a reason to not see the film. See it! This movie is hilarious all the way through and I’m so happy I finally caught it. If I hear you’ve let your kids see it, though, IMA sic the slobbery muppet dog on you.
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS Official Trailer (2018)