A pretty common flaw in edgy adult comedy films is equating shock value--unexpectedly sexual moments, gore, drug abuse, violence, etc.--with mature humor. These gross out moments do not automatically something funny or edgy. They often distract from the rest of the film.
The Happytime Murders, conceptually, derives most of its humor from this kind of situation. The comedy is "look at puppets take drugs, solicit sex, or get brutally murdered." There's not much depth beyond that in the humor. It's the major flaw of the film and, frankly, enough to not recommend watching the film.
It's a shame that the creative team went in this direction. There actually is a solid little murder mystery happening in The Happytime Murders that could have been more Roger Rabbit than Crank Yankers. The crime plot is nothing innovative, but it's paced well with some nice twists and turns.
Puppets are alive and treated as second class citizens in human society. Phil Phillips, formerly of the LAPD, is now a private eye taking on any case he can to make a living. His brother was one of the stars of The Happytime Gang, the first successful sitcom to start puppets on Primetime TV. The cast landed a lucrative syndication deal that shares the residuals evenly among any living cast members. Naturally, someone wants more and the cast members start being murdered one by one. Phil is forced to team up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards, who happens to be the human responsible for the testimony that bars puppets from every serving in the LAPD again. Bad blood needs to be set aside to stop a serial killer targeting literal second-class citizens from killing the entire cast of the hit show.
I'm not going to lie. I totally bought into the murder mystery and police drama stories. There's really solid world building to make you care about the plight of the puppets as well as the fall from grace the cast of The Happytime Gang faced. There's a very blatant metaphor for racism in America threaded throughout the entire film and, frankly, that message needs to be blatant sometimes. We're not getting closer to equality for all by ignoring institutionalized racism. Maybe by being confronted with scenes referencing the imbalance of justice in police investigation (or the inability of a certain group of people to fully integrate into society and advance as quickly as the majority) in what's supposed to be a mindless comedy will help some people finally get the message.
The stakes (and clear metaphor for racism in America) are established early on when Phil has to chase a group of human teenagers away from a homeless puppet who is just trying to dance for a living. The teenagers rip his eye out before leaving, treating the puppet as an object to be abused rather than a living being. Phil encourages the homeless puppet to find another job since puppets are allowed to be more than entertainers now. The homeless puppet responds by saying his purpose as a puppet in human society is to dance and entertain. He literally knows no other way to earn a living because, like Phil and his brief tenure in the LAPD, he's just not given a chance to do anything else of real value in society.
This kind of scene happens again and again in The Happytime Murders. There's an entire subplot that starts as a shocking drug joke that goes into the danger of passing privilege and what happens when part of someone's identity is weaponized against them. There's so much thought hidden in plain sight that it really makes reviewing this film a challenge.
The Happytime Murders is not a good film. The comedy is lazy and way too many of the "funny" scenes overstay their welcome. But it's also quite clear why those scenes had to be included. A serious murder mystery as a gateway to discuss racial politics and social injustice with puppets would never get wide distribution if it could even find financing at all to be made. Frankly, I think that's the real reason the film took decades to come to the screen. My guess, pure speculation, is that it started as a very serious drama that was watered down again and again until someone saw enough crowd appeal to allow this bizarre fable about Hollywood and institutionalized racism to be made at all. The focus shifted to puppet prostitutes and junkies at the expense of character development and plot structure. This kind of film can have moments of levity--the back and forth banter between Phil and Connie is actually pretty funny--but you don't get to go to such tonal extremes and end up with a cohesive film.
The tonal shifts are really hard to swallow. I'm thinking in particular of one scene where Connie finds one of The Happytime Gang cast members. He was the cute silly puppet on the show (think adorable child sidekick on a sitcom type), and now he's a junkie living in a drug den. He offers some really important clues to the murder case, but he offers to service Connie before and after every statement with any substance. He also repeatedly calls her a man (a running gag in the film that was totally unnecessary as it's never funny). The circumstances of this character's story are heartbreaking. In another film, this would be a sobering scene that hides clues in plain sight by distracting you with human misery. That's it's own narrative problem, but it's a problem that at least attempts to acknowledge the severity of those issues.
In The Happytime Murders, these issues are totally overshadowed by a series of unfunny jokes about him being a drug whore. Because when I think of comic relief, I think of how Hollywood chews up and spits out young promising stars, getting them hooked on drugs and leaving them to rot on the streets until they OD, get arrested, or die of suicide. Hilarious. The only thing funnier is drug addicts who lose everything and have to turn to sex work to get their fix in between squatting in abandoned buildings. Sounds like a laugh riot, right? Especially because a puppet is doing it? That's the comedic philosophy of the film--take something horrible and have puppets do it, therefore it's just funny--and it doesn't work.
Here's what I'll say about The Happytime Murders. It's not a very good film. I did have a lot more fun than I thought I would watching it. I appreciated the deeper moments of commentary in the story. The live actors and puppeteers really committed to their characters and it's about as well-performed as it can be with such a mixed up screenplay. The wordplay and physical comedy (not drug or sex related) largely worked. I wouldn't actively seek out the film again, but I wouldn't turn it off if it appeared on TV or popped up on my streaming queues.
The Happytime Murders is currently playing in theaters.
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