By The Nerdling
Disgraced ex-LAPD detective, now private eye, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is hired by housewife/mom/sex-worker Sandra (Dorien Davies) to find her blackmailer. While working Sandra’s case, Philips is caught in the middle of a murder investigation. The cast from a popular 80’s children show The Happytime Gang, which starred his brother Larry Shenanigans (Victor Yerrid) and former lover Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), are being killed off one-by-one. Phil must team up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who’s testimony against him in a wrongful death shooting got him kicked off the force and subsequently created a law stating puppets could no longer be cops.
Leaving the theater, I wasn’t sure how to feel about The Happytime Murders. It was funny enough, sure. The cast, both the human side and puppeteers, provided sound performances. The raunchiness promised in the trailers was certainly there. The movie definitely had something to say about discrimination of a certain group in Hollywood, but not the discrimination we have been talking about. But The Happytime Murders seemed to miss the mark on what it wanted or could have been. I’m sure director Brian Henson was going for a modern day Who Framed Roger Rabbit? /The Maltese Falcon, but didn’t know quite how to make it happen.
All of the elements for a proper film noir were there. The seedy underbelly of a major city. Former cop turned private eye with a dark past that haunts him. Voice over narration. Femme Fatale. Hard living former partner who hates the protagonists, but secretly missed them. A wild conspiracy involving the main character’s past. The Happytime Murders finds its humor in the overly serious nature of noir. The sexy/gritty nature of noir film is exchanged for puppets doing obscene things like erotic cow milking performed by an octopus, or a BDSM film where a dalmatian puts the fireman through obedience school.
What is lacking is a well told story, and there is an inkling of one there. Puppets are considered second-class citizens by the “fleshies”, there for the entertainment and service of humans. They are harassed on a daily basis for attempting to exist. No human blinks an eye when some are murdered for their feet, which are considered lucky and are sold on the black market. Phil, once upon a time, broke barriers by becoming the first puppet cop. But a perceived bias a puppet wouldn’t lawfully shoot another puppet quickly gets him kicked off the force.
All of this could also be interpreted as a racism allegory, but I honestly hope that isn’t the case. If it is, then it is handled in the worst way. Most of the puppets are prostitutes, addicts (for sugar), sex hounds, or gangsters.
I think the puppets are a stand in for the puppeteers themselves. Their talents considered less by Hollywood and are not as compensated for their work. Puppets exist to sing, dance, and entertain children, but the puppeteers want more for their creations. They wished to be seen as versatile as human actors. The best way Henson displays this yearning is to show the puppets as deeply flawed and disturbed beings. The film does a great job in showcasing the efforts of making a film like this in the credits. A behind the scenes glimpse displays just how much work and magic goes into creating something so simple as a puppet walking down the street next to a human.
While the humor and performances are there, The Happytime Murders is a paint-by-the-numbers noir where the twist ending is painfully obvious once the plot starts to set itself up. Next time Henson decides he wants to push the boundaries with puppets (and I hope he does), fingers crossed he decides to do it with a better movie.
The Nerdling was born in the majestic land known as Texas and currently resides there after several years of journeying through Middle Earth in a failed attempt to steal the one Ring from that annoying hobbit, serving the Galactic Empire for a time, and then a short stint as a crew member on the Serenity. Since moving back to her homeland, Nerdling flirted with a hero reputation. Saving children from the dangers of adoring domineering, sparkly vampires (champions with souls are the only vampires worth loving) and teaching normals the value of nerdom, all while rooting for her beloved Dallas Stars. Then came the Sokovia Accords and her short spell of saving others came to an end. With Darth Vader’s reputation rightfully returning to badass status, Nerdling is making her way back to the Empire. They do have cookies, you know. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.