An X-rated Mup­pets in ‘The Hap­py­time Mur­ders’

Riverbank News - - MARKETPLACE 209 - By JAKE COYLE

It’s al­most re­as­sur­ing that in to­day’s of­ten san­i­tized, assem­bly-line main­stream moviemak­ing that a film can be as crude, as off-brand and as bad as “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders.” Al­most.

Star­ring Melissa McCarthy in a seedy, half-hu­man, half-pup­pet Los An­ge­les, “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders” is an R-rated, adult-themed pup­pet ad­ven­ture from Brian Hen­son, son of Jim. That in it­self isn’t ter­ri­ble. The el­der Hen­son him­self had adult as­pi­ra­tions for the Mup­pets. (They were, awk­wardly, a part of the first sea­son of “Satur­day Night Live.”) From Edgar Ber­gen’s dum­mies to “Av­enue Q” to “Team Amer­ica” the thrill of pup­pets say­ing what they shouldn’t has long held some amuse­ment.

But the hu­mor of “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders,” a Jim Hen­son Com­pany pro­duc­tion fea­tur­ing a new species of Mup­pet dubbed Miskre-ants, is so stale that I sus­pect even those bit­ter bal­cony crit­ics Statler and Wal­dorf wouldn’t bother heck­ling it. “Hap­py­time Mur­ders” has been pro­moted as “No Se­same, All Street,” a tagline that re­sulted in a law­suit from the Se­same Work­shop (it was dis­missed). And Hen­son (who di­rected “The Mup­pet Christ­mas Carol” and “Mup­pet Trea­sure Is­land”) seems to think the film can coast by purely on cheap gig­gles from pup­pets brows­ing for porn, snort­ing glit­ter through Twiz­zlers and be­ing blown into clouds of cot­ton.

It can’t. The re­sult is a low point for the Jim Hen­son Com­pany, a dispir­it­ing and un­mit­i­gated mis­fire whose only up­side is that it shows a sloppy, ill-con­sid­ered movie can still get made, de­spite to­day’s qual­ity con­trols.

“The Hap­py­time Mur­ders” is dispir­it­ing not be­cause it’s crude but be­cause it’s so empty of wit, de­spite the comic fire­power of McCarthy, Maya Ru­dolph and El­iz­a­beth Banks — a trio not in need of pup­pet as­sis­tance. Yet the film’s clash of cute and coarse makes the toon mash-up “Who Framed Roger Rab­bit” look com­par­a­tively seam­less.

And like “Roger Rab­bit,” ‘’The Hap­py­time Mur­ders” is a de­tec­tive tale: a film noir with felt. Phil Phillips (pup­peteer Bill Bar­retta) is a pri­vate eye like most be­fore him — a cyn­i­cal ex-cop with Vene­tian shades in his of­fice — only Phil dif­fers in that he’s oc­ca­sion­ally mis­taken for a blue sock.

In “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders,” the pup­pets are sec­ond-class cit­i­zens with few rights of their own, though more free­dom than when they were ear­lier forced to be en­ter­tain­ers. “Times have changed,” Phil tells a side­walk per­former. “You don’t have to sing and dance for the man any­more.” To make it in Hollywood, some pup­pets, like Phil’s brother, re­sort to bleach­ing their skin and don­ning more hu­man­like noses.

Phil finds him­self on the trail of a “Seven”-like killer who is killing all of the stars from a for­mer pup­pet sit­com, “The Hap­py­time Gang.” The case re­unites him with his for­mer part­ner (McCarthy). In their pur­suit, the pup­pet deaths, whether by bul­let or dog bite, are fre­quent and messy. For a movie about the dig­nity of the pup­pet in a hu­man world, it de­rives a lot of glee from see­ing them torn to shreds.

Maybe Mup­pets could make salient so­ciopo­lit­i­cal metaphors. Maybe let­ting them run amok in a grownup world could be funny. Maybe Gonzo’s chicken fetish is worth in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

But such a par­al­lel uni­verse doesn’t ex­ist in “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders,” which uses its premise for only a pa­rade of ghastly scenes of sex, vi­o­lence and ex­ple­tives. None pay off, not even the pro­longed fi­nale of a desk- side tryst, com­plete with a Silly String burst. De­spite the (hu­man) comedic tal­ent, only Ru­dolph lands a sin­gle joke.

It’s all such a painfully far cry from the heights of the Hen­son em­pire. As Rowlf the Dog once sang, “I hope that some­thing bet­ter comes along.”

“The Hap­py­time Mur­ders,” a STX En­ter­tain­ment re­lease, is rated R by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for strong crude and sex­ual con­tent and lan­guage through­out, “and some drug ma­te­rial.” Run­ning time: 91 min­utes. One star out of four.

Pho­tos con­trib­uted

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