Did anyone honestly expect film critics to like The Happytime Murders? I don’t like it either, but before watching it I expected it to be one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. Vanity Fair declared it, “may be the worst movie of the year” after its August release. “Depressing puppet show,” “dead on arrival,” and “boring dreck” have all been used to describe it. Did we all watch the same movie?
Is it an immature movie? Sure. The humor level doesn’t surpass a “South Park” or “Family Guy” episode. There are puppets having sex, doing drugs, and engaging in general deviancy. The camera lingers way too long on an octopus milking a cow, and spends more time than needed on watching the protagonist ejaculate silly string, but at least there’s an attempt at a story and quality puppet work. This isn’t Movie 43.
This actually follows the muppet formula in a way; the film is a play on noir PI works. Our main character is an ex-cop who is approached by a dame. She’s being blackmailed by someone, and it’s the dick’s job to fix it (strangely they never touched the “private dick” joke, that seems right up this movie’s alley). While following the trail, he becomes wrapped up in someone’s attempts to murder the cast of a TV show, and is dragged back into working with an old police partner (played by Melissa McCarthy) in order to crack the case. The two have a past, and it all plays into the plot in a satisfying way that makes sense. It’s very standard fare for this style of movie, and a fine plot for a parody film.
Where the film goes off the rails for me is in its not-so-subtext. In the beginning, the film tells and shows you that the puppets are discriminated against. Villains will express bigotry meant to parallel real racism, and I think the film is trying to have a positive message against that kind of bigotry. However, two problems exist; the film is too absurd to bother having that sort of message in it, and having the knowledge that puppets are meant to be a stand-in for oppressed minorities (specifically black Americans) leaves an odd feeling when deviant puppet behavior is so frequently played for laughs. One only needs a passing familiarity with the history of racism and xenophobia to understand why that’s problematic.
If you remove the race layer, I think there are some decent joke ideas hidden in the script. There’s a rabbit puppet that’s a sex-addicted pervert, which made me laugh. I think puppets using sugar as a drug is kind of funny. Some may complain about the nonsensical anatomy, but it’s a joke I’m comfortable not thinking about too hard. How can a human take a puppet liver transplant? It wouldn’t become funnier to explain, so they picked the best permutation of that joke. Puppet anatomy is pushed to its limits as humor (albeit incredibly hit-or-miss), and I’m sure a better writer could’ve written a better script. However, it’s not even the worst in the screenplay category. Like I mentioned, the plot is unimaginative, but I didn’t dislike it. It hits the emotional points it needs to and those scenes are perfectly okay.
Melissa McCarthy actually works for me because she went all-in. She’s snortin’ candy powder and yelling swear words at puppets. She always thrives in roles where she comes into verbal and physical conflict with characters, and she remains comfortable with that schtick here. The role seemed written for her, and she did exactly what a ridiculous movie needs a ridiculous actress to do. On the other hand, Joel McHale stood out in a negative way in moments. His character appears out of nowhere, his interactions with the puppets weren’t as good as McCarthy’s, and the only thing he plays well is the anger and frustration that comes along with being the villainous higher-up in a buddy cop movie.
So how bad is The Happytime Murders? Not good, but not that bad. Can it win the Worst Picture Razzie? I suppose it can. Should it? No. I’ve seen at least one worse film from the Worst Picture Razzie nominations list . With a script that moved away from the raunch and more into a silly puppet parody, it could’ve been decent. Don’t bother watching The Happytime Murders, but the creators can rest easy knowing they’re only a top five worst film of the year.