Sometimes one gimmick is all you need in our comedy-starved age.
That’s not to say “The Happytime Murders” is as subversive as it wants you to think. We’ve seen R-rated puppets before, thank you. “Team America’s” marionette sex scene remains the pinnacle of this microscopic genre.
Still, “The Happytime Murders” generates enough laughs for anyone who hears the tag line: “No Sesame, All Street.” and squeals with delight.
Muppet P.I. Phil (voiced by Bill Barretta) used to walk the beat as the first muppet detective. See, in this alternate universe, muppets and humans live side by side. Only muppets, like the orcs in Netflix’s bloated sci-fi romp “Bright,” are second-class citizens. If you’re fearing another progressive lecture … don’t. The social strata sets up the plot, and not much else.
Phil reteams with his old partner, Connie (Melissa McCarthy) when the members of a ’90s era TV show “The Happytime Gang” start getting knocked off one by one. Can Phil and Connie stop bickering long enough to crack the case? Will Phil reunite with his old human flame (Elizabeth Banks, slumming)?
More importantly, how much puppet bodily fluids can one movie spray across the screen?
FAST FACT: Director Brian Henson, son of Muppets guru Jim Henson, initially didn’t want to follow his father’s felt footsteps. He auditioned for a puppeteering gig with “Return to Oz” on a whim and never looked back.
Screenwriter Todd Berger summons his inner 14-year-old for much of the punch lines. Need the saddest example? Try a running gag where Connie mocks an FBI agent (a bored Joel McHale) by muttering, “A**hole says what?”
Your bratty nephew retired that gag in the fourth grade. How did it make it past the first draft?
Still, the shock value reels you in. Seeing felt creations talk dirty, or at the very least bray like sailors on shore leave, is worth a smirk. Credit the puppeteers who turn these stuffed creations into relatable characters.
Other gross tactics collapse at first sight. Seeing dismembered puppets isn’t shocking or funny. the uneasy alliance between muppets and humans is clever at first but quickly grows stale. “Crash and Bernstein” offered more creative takes on the puppet-human dynamic.
— Happytime Murders (@HappytimeMovie) August 20, 2018
Enter Maya Rudolph, the “Saturday Night Live” vet who refuses to phone in her role. She’s Phil’s faithful sidekick, and darned if she doesn’t sell some gags with her impeccable line readings.
If you’re gonna start creating Oscar categories out of thin air, why not, “Best Performance In an Otherwise Mediocre Movie?”
McCarthy is an old pro at making lemonade out of sour gags. Just look at her last half dozen films. She does it again here, but never with the snap she typically brings to the screen.
R-rated gems like “Superbad” and “The Hangover” made the most of the adult rating. How? By taking a breather from the smut every now and then. Here’s betting the late Hugh Hefner rented a PG movie or two, if only to cleanse his cultural palate.
A little breathing room, or at least moments where you’re not bludgeoned by another “offensive” torpedo, might have made these “Murders” more memorable.
Those exhausted with prurient fare should steer clear of “The Happytime Murders.” It’s hardly first-class crass.
HiT or Miss: “The Happytime Murders” shows the limits of R-rated debauchery.