For a re­view of “The Happy-time Mur­ders,”

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Hen­son Al­ter­na­tive, an off­shoot of the Jim Hen­son Com­pany, cre­ators of our beloved Mup­pets and Se­same Street char­ac­ters, bills their con­tent as “not in­tended for our youngest view­ers.” Don’t ex­pect Elmo or Grover or Big Bird around here, these are Mup­pets for grown-ups. And they’ve truly swung for their fences, and a hard R-Rat­ing, with their first fea­ture film, “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders,” which is a hard-boiled de­tec­tive neo-noir film star­ring these fuzzy pup­pety friends along­side hu­man ac­tors. Un­for­tu­nately, some mildly-amus­ing ideas shouldn’t be full-length fea­ture films and “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders” falls vic­tim to that.

Di­rected by Brian Hen­son, and writ­ten by Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robert­son, the en­tire con­ceit of “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders” is: Pup­pets Be­hav­ing Badly. It’s just that there’s noth­ing else to the joke. That’s it. And frankly, that joke’s been done be­fore. The film pushes the lev­els of de­cency and taste into the gut­ter, then pushes it fur­ther, and that’s sup­posed to be funny. Be­cause pup­pets! Clearly it’s in­spired by the likes of the Broad­way mu­si­cal “Av­enue Q,” and “Team Amer­ica: World Po­lice,” which got away with ex­plicit sex and crude body hu­mor be­cause the pro­tag­o­nists were mar­i­onettes. “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders” is just an­other re­tread of that con­cept.

Bill Bar­retta voices the hero, Phil Philips, a pup­pet pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor and former de­tec­tive liv­ing in LA, where pup­pets are equal, but dis­crim­i­nated against. Their poor treat­ment is a ra­cial metaphor that never quite takes off. He’s hired by a comely fe­male pup­pet, San­dra White (Dorien Davies), ask­ing him to look into a se­ries of threat­en­ing black­mail let­ters. In his search, he be­comes wit­ness to a bru­tal mur­der in a porn shop, which turns into the sys­temic ex­e­cu­tion of a group of pup­pets who starred on ’80s TV show, “The Hap­py­time Gang,” in­clud­ing his brother, Larry. He runs into his old po­lice de­tec­tive part­ner, Con­nie Ed­wards (Melissa McCarthy) and the two are soon be­grudg­ingly work­ing the case to­gether.

McCarthy does ev­ery­thing in her power to pro­pel this project for­ward, but no amount of phys­i­cal com­edy can erase the fact that this movie is sim­ply D.O.A. The hu­mor re­lies on graphic de­pic­tions of pup­pet vi­o­lence, pup­pets do­ing drugs (sugar, rather), gam­bling, hav­ing sex, beat­ing peo­ple up — all things you’d never ex­pect to see a fuzzy pup­pet friend do. But that’s the ex­tent of it, play­ing on that cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. De­spite the best ef­forts of McCarthy, and a win­some Maya Ru­dolph as Phil’s 40s-style sec­re­tary Bub­bles, “The Hap­py­time Mur­ders” is more like the “Bor­ing­time Slog.” It’s only 90 min­utes, but this un­o­rig­i­nal and crude dreck isn’t even worth your hour and a half.

“The Hap­py­time Mur­ders,” a STX En­ter­tain­ment re­lease, is rated R for strong crude and sex­ual con­tent and lan­guage through­out, and some drug ma­te­rial. Run­ning time: 91 min­utes. ★


The new film ver­sion of “Papil­lon,” based on Henri Char­riere’s 1969 best-seller and its 1973 se­quel, “Banco,” is rather bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous screen adap­ta­tion star­ring Steve Mc­Queen (mouth closed) and Dustin Hoff­man (mouth agape). For some that’ll be heresy. For oth­ers, it’s a dif­fi­dent Gal­lic shrug of a rec­om­men­da­tion.

That ear­lier “Papil­lon,” a big hit in the year (1973) of “The Sting,” “The Ex­or­cist” and “Amer­i­can Graf­fiti,” holds a place of re­spect in the hearts of mil­lions, as do Char­riere’s own ac­counts of wily en­durance, be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter his time on the pe­nal colony known as Devil’s Is­land. Tales of un­likely es­cape from the worst pris­ons known to hu­mankind ex­ert a pe­cu­liar hold on movie­go­ers. For a cou­ple of gru­el­ing hours we trade our own cir­cum­stances for some­one else’s bru­tal ex­tremes, and we come away drained as well as in­spired — Shaw­shanked, in other words.

So what is it about this par­tic­u­lar story that re­sists fully sat­is­fy­ing cin­e­matic treat­ment?

Partly, I think, it’s be­cause you can be­lieve only so much of it. The new “Papil­lon” di­rected by Dan­ish doc­u­men­tary and fea­ture film­maker Michael Noer cov­ers more ground chrono­log­i­cally than the pre­vi­ous one, which is a wel­come change. In Aaron Guzikowski’s script we meet the dash­ing safe­cracker nick­named Papil­lon (But­ter­fly) breez­ing through his merry life in the Mont­martre sec­tion of Paris, 1931. Life is good and Charlie Hun­nam, who plays Papil­lon, en­joys him­self to the fullest, in or out of the bed of his lover por­trayed by Eve Hew­son.

Abruptly Papil­lon’s ar­rested and con­victed for a mur­der he didn’t com­mit, and he is flung into the cesspool of the French pe­nal sys­tem shortly after­ward. Life im­pris­on­ment in French Guiana, on the coast of South Amer­ica, sends Papil­lon into a se­ries of res­cue at­tempts. Along with an­other con­vict, coun­ter­feiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek, try­ing as hard as pos­si­ble not to “do” Dustin Hoff­man), Papi even­tu­ally finds him­self on the no­to­ri­ous Devil’s Is­land, from which no man has ever es­caped.

Span­ning 1931-45, the new “Papil­lon” was filmed in Ser­bia and on Malta. Its early scenes of the Moulin Rouge hey­day are pure back­lot ar­ti­fice, later phas­ing into direc­tor Noer’s pen­chant for hand­held im­me­di­acy, get­ting as close as pos­si­ble to shower brawls, throat-slit­tings, grimy sex­ual ex­ploita­tions and Papil­lon’s years in soli­tary.

The film du­ti­fully hits the high­lights of the es­cape at­tempts. Hun­nam is the movie’s fo­cal point as well as its lust ob­ject, box of­fice ap­peal and moral cen­ter; he’s a good-guy crim­i­nal, who never hurt a fly un­til the sadis­tic French pe­nal sys­tem grabbed hold of him. Dega, a cow­ard and a weak­ling, needs his friend’s pro­tec­tion. In ex­change, he bankrolls the var­i­ous bribes and pay­offs needed to make a suc­cess­ful break from Devil’s Is­land, his money tucked safely away in his pos­te­rior.

As for your own pos­te­rior, it may un­dergo a bit of an en­durance test, even though the new “Papil­lon” runs about 20 min­utes shorter than the old one. Plenty of movies, prison movies and ev­ery other kind, don’t feel the least bit draggy at this length. But the rhythms of Char­riere’s ver­sion of his life story be­come weary­ing af­ter a while: con­fine­ment, es­cape at­tempt, pun­ish­ment, blood­let­ting, con­fine­ment, es­cape at­tempt, re­peat. The char­ac­ters them­selves are va­garies, types, not quite three-di­men­sional peo­ple. The new pa­per­back edi­tion of Char­riere’s mem­oir in­cludes an es­say by Howard Marks, deal­ing with var­i­ous ac­cu­sa­tions of ghost­writ­ers and fabri­ca­tions. Cer­tainly Char­riere’s di­a­logue-heavy mem­o­ries in the mem­oir are a bit sus­pect. Oh, what­ever, Marks con­cludes. “Who cares? The end re­sult is mag­nif­i­cent.”

I wish the movie was. In ’73, “Papil­lon” got the plod­ding Im­por­tant Mo­tion Pic­ture treat­ment; this time, the re­sults are leaner, less sar­donic (wiseacre Wil­liam Gold­man did un­cred­ited rewrites on the Mc­Queen/ Hoff­man film) but rarely ex­cit­ing, de­spite the more ex­plicit vi­o­lence and sex­u­al­ity. Malek’s Dega keeps his voice to a flat reg­is­ter, never quite mak­ing the per­for­mance his own. Hun­nam’s re­li­ably charis­matic in suf­fer­ing and in joy, but with most of the po­lit­i­cal and wartime con­text shaved off the story, once again, we’re left with the ba­sics.

What Char­riere en­dured, and fi­nally left be­hind, has al­ready proven ir­re­sistible to a global au­di­ence. This retelling — pret­tily as­sem­bled, a lit­tle dull — gives that au­di­ence lit­tle that’s truly new.

“Papil­lon,” a Bleecker Street Me­dia re­lease, is rated R for vi­o­lence in­clud­ing bloody images, lan­guage, nu­dity, and some sex­ual ma­te­rial. Run­ning time: 133 min­utes. ★★½


Rami Malek, left, and Charlie Hun­nam star in the new Bleecker Street Me­dia film “Papil­lon.”

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