What’s most frustrating, perhaps, about The Happytime Murders is that there is the germ, the nubbin, of a potentially really enjoyable film hiding somewhere inside it. That really enjoyable film, however, has been crushed by the weight of the monumental amounts of bollocks under which it has been buried.
The core conceit of the film — muppets, although they’re only referred to in the film as puppets, despite the film being directed by Jim Henson’s boy Brian, live alongside humans — could, in the right hands and with a decent script, have been worked up into something quite entertaining. The story that’s built around this conceit, a slightly noirish private-eye investigation of a series of murders of the stars of The Happytime Gang, a tragically twee puppets-and-humans sitcom, again could have been something interesting. But Henson has decided to make the private-eye story a buddy-cop story, and, despite the warning bells that must have been sounding throughout the studio the moment the pitch was made, cast Melissa McCarthy as Edwards, the human partner to Phil Philips, the puppet ex-copper turned private investigator following a shooting gone wrong.
It’s not simply that McCarthy is a bad actress. She’s not — Bridesmaids is all the evidence you need to make that argument — but she needs to be deployed with great care. She’s like salt in a recipe — a little adds a lot of flavour. But just as a pinch of salt is all you need, but that doesn’t mean that adding a great big handful will add even more flavour, a little McCarthy goes a very, very long way, and she simply isn’t able to carry a film. Her schtick, such as it is, seems to be that women can do nasty and gross-out just as well as men, and, again, Bridesmaids is a classic example of this. But The Happytime Murders is not — not most of the time, anyway — a nasty, gross-out film.
And that last qualification is the problem. Most of the time, The Happytime Murders tries to be a clever, witty slightly noirish private-eye film, albeit not a particularly well-written one. It can’t quite bring itself to let go of the over-the-top filthy humour that makes films like Team America: World Police genuinely funny, but it does it half-heartedly, unwilling to commit to being thoroughly, genuinely nasty, and only really managing to fall between two stools. Team America’s puppet-sex scene was funny in part because it belonged in that film, it was an organic part of the squalid nastiness of the overall piece. But the few times The Happytime Murders attempts something comparable, including a scene involving Silly String that appears in a trailer and is entirely unrepresentative of the film as a whole, it just doesn’t work. It’s not, as we’ve said, that such a scene is inherently bad, but it’s so out of place and jarring and incongruous that it utterly fails to work, in the same way that a song-and-dance routine is entirely appropriate in Mamma Mia, but would fit somewhat less well in a Quentin Tarantino film.
And so The Happytime Murders plods along, not quite knowing what it wants to be and failing, sometimes badly, at almost everything it sketches at. There is, Melissa McCarthy notwithstanding, some decent acting talent at work, including Leslie David Baker as the obligatory crumpled, weary police lieutenant, and, most interestingly, Bill Barretta — the voice of the Swedish Chef — as Phil the one-time policepuppet. More disappointing is Joel McHale, who has yet to find his niche without the support of Community and who really needs to have a word, first with himself, and then with the agent who thought that putting him in a film that gives him nothing meaningful to do except look scowly and pretty in a moderately smart suit.
In the end, it’s hard to figure out what Henson thought he was trying to achieve with The Happytime Murders, but what he has achieved is little more than a rather magnificent cinematic shitting of the bed.