What happens when you take a bunch of sweet, cute little puppets and suddenly give them potty mouths and show them doing adult things that puppets shouldn’t do? Why, you get the groundbreaking film Meet The Feebles – a shock cult classic from the mind of a pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson.
Released in 1989, Meet The Feebles was both a parody of The Muppet Show and also one of the boldest, ballsiest exploitation films ever made. Puppets swearing, having Vietnam War Flashbacks, doing drugs, filming BDSM… and that is the tame stuff. Honestly, if you have never seen it, it is one of those films that has to be seen to believe it even exists.
So when a film like The Happytime Murders comes around promising a shocking film with puppets doing things we have never seen, you had better believe that in a post-Feebles world it had better deliver the goods. Particularly when the guy delivering said goods is the son of Jim Henson.
The plot takes its’ cue from the Film Noir detective films of old. The story centers around Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) – a former cop turned private detective, who is hired by Sandra (Dorien Davies) to investigate a blackmail scheme. That investigation leads to Phil being in the wrong place at the wrong time and stumbling across a connection between his case and two murders – both victims having been part of the cast of the hit 90’s television show The Happytime Gang.
Phil is forced to team up with Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) – his former partner in the LAPD, who was responsible for him being kicked off the force. The usual mismatched buddy cop shenanigans ensue, and along the way we get half-hearted attempts at messages about how minorities are still treated as second class citizens, buried under jokes about puppet sex, puppets swearing and how everyone thinks Melissa McCarthy looks “mannish”.
McCarthy’s performance is a hot mess. Reportedly her addition to the film’s cast was arranged to keep the film alive. The movie was in production hell for a number of years and had trouble finding any backers because Brian Henson wanted to produce a serious Sam Spade story that just happened to make use of puppets. In a last ditch effort to get something made, Melissa McCarthy was brought on-board as the human lead and the film was altered to be a buddy-cop comedy. You can see where the film’s original serious scenes are and it is there the film actually clicked for me. This might have been a far better film had Henson been allowed to play it serious.
Of course Jim Henson’s Muppets have always had a cheeky side to them. The famous song/routine Mah Nà Mah Nà itself was taken from the soundtrack of a Swedish/Italian soft-core porn film. Even in Muppet Treasure Island, which was the last feature-length film Brian Henson directed before The Happytime Murders, jokes were made about Miss Piggy’s appetite for “male companionship” and exactly how Long John Silver got the nickname “Long John”. So when Brian Henson decided to take puppets into a more adult arena with the creation of Henson Alternative (or HA! for short), one would think that the cheeky humor would go broad. It doesn’t.
The Happytime Murders cardinal sin is acting like it is something new. It wants to push boundaries but never gets to the same level as a gay fox singing a musical number about the joys of sodomy while a giant hippo armed with a real AK-47 is shooting real bullets into puppets onscreen. (Yes, that actually happened in Meet The Feebles.) Hearing puppets swear is not a new thing for those who have seen Feebles. Or even those who remember the Comedy Central series Crank Yankers.
This movie is like that person at a party who does the “pull the coin from behind a lady’s ear” trick, who also acts like he invented it. It comes off as a half-assed button-push. So does the film’s approach to puppet sex.
The movie acts like the sight of two puppets having sex will be just oh-so shocking and foul, and it might have been had the musical Avenue Q never existed. The same boundaries were pushed and the same gags were offered up in Team America: World Police. In Happytime, the puppets have sex yet remain fully clothed. As Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada would say in her sarcastic tone, “Groundbreaking.”
Pushing buttons halfheartedly is not the only thing that doesn’t work here. Joel McHale (cast as the cliche hard-ass FBI agent pulling rank on the cops) looks like he is having a terrible time. It’s almost as if he lost a bet and his punishment was to make this film. He has all the presence of a fly on your bowl of potato salad during Easter dinner, only the fly REALLY hates your potato salad. In the annuls of actors looking like they do not want to be there, this one makes Whoopi Goldberg’s performance in Theodore Rex look like her performance in Ghost.
Leslie David Baker of The Office fame is also on-hand to play the stereotypical angry black police chief, only he never becomes angry enough to become that stereotype. Instead, he is here to just to be another random face added into the movie to make the audience go “Hey! It’s that guy!” Then there’s the utterly wasted Elizabeth Banks. Getting top billing after McCarthy despite having only six minutes of screen time, Banks plays the only human cast member of The Happytime Gang, who has been reduced to stripping for puppet rabbits. Like McHale, Banks looks like she is only here to collect a paycheck.
The film’s biggest saving grace is Maya Rudolph as Bubbles. Doing what she can with the material given, Maya gives us one of the best send-ups ever of the His Girl Friday secretary stock-character that old-school movie detectives always had – the sweet girl who is not afraid to get her hands dirty to save her boss, because she has a heart of gold and secretly loves her boss. Rudolph commits to the role, and it pays off. Unfortunately, while she saves a few scenes, she can’t save the whole movie.
All in all, The Happytime Murders is not a terrible film – just a film filled with a lot of missed opportunities. Perhaps it would have been better if they pushed the envelope to a near NC-17 with more intelligent jokes than “Lady Looks Like A Dude” humor. It was telling when the audience members who laughed the hardest at the screening I attended were the drunk frat boys in the row behind me. While frat boy humor has its’ place (I was that age once too), it would also be nice if this movie had some thought put into it instead of fluff.