Happytime Murders: More Than Just Fluff

For those who may be concerned, the above video is 100% free of silly string.

Among people who know me well, I’m not known for having a very generous attitude toward blue humor. As a matter of fact, if you were to ask the people I went to high school with, most of them would probably say I was something of a prude. (They might not actually use the word “prude,” but they would say something to that effect.) And my poor, patient younger brother could attest to the number of times he’s shown me an R-rated movie that he really likes, hoping that we could enjoy it together, only to have me watch it like a deer in headlights, and sometimes get on my high horse about it after the fact.

All of which is just to help you to understand where I’m coming from when I say that I saw Happytime Murders recently and actually really loved it.

When it comes to approaching blue material, whether that be as a writer, an analyst, or an audience member, I have three basic rules which I use to assess the content:

  1. Less is almost always more.
  2. Implicit is almost always funnier than explicit.
  3. Rules 1 and 2 can be broken if it is germane to the plot.

Since the Happytime trailer was first released, there has been much discussion regarding gratuitousness and raunch for raunch’s sake. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that I believe that the scenes that people objected to in the trailer all have a legitimate story reason to be there. In other words, it would be very difficult to tell this particular story were those scenes not present. Maybe it would have been possible to make a PG-13 noir murder mystery with puppets, but it would have ended up telling a much different story.

With that said, however, I think there’s a legitimate argument to be made whether or not the objectionable gags within those necessary scenes overstayed their welcome. For example, while I contend that the sex scene has a legitimate story reason for being there, was it strictly necessary to use quite that MUCH silly string? I don’t know, but it’s a valid question to ask. Another scene, which I personally found much more disturbing than the sex scene, is when Phil (our puppet protagonist) gets in a physical altercation with a human being (who, to be clear, is a genuinely bad guy), gets him on the ground and repeatedly stomps on his crotch. To be fair, it is an impressive piece of puppetry, but it’s not a very funny gag to begin with, and as it continues for what seems like an interminable length of time, it seems like the humor is coming from schadenfreude, which I consider to be a shaky comedic foundation on which to build. Then there’s the matter of the profanity. There is a lot of it in this movie, and every once in a while it does feel gratuitous, and yet, even when I felt it was gratuitous, it still made me laugh.

I am something of a connoisseur of gritty murder mysteries, and within that context the profanity, violence, and sexual content didn’t seem all that out of place to me. It makes me wonder if the movie would have worked better if it had been a straight murder mystery, in which some of the characters happen to be puppets, rather than a comedy.

Incidentally, I have no fault to find with the mystery aspect of it. I’ve watched/read enough murder mysteries by now that I can sometimes figure out who the killer is merely by the contextual clues. In this case, I was totally taken off guard when the killer’s identity was revealed, and yet, when I looked back on the evidence, all the pieces fit together in a logical way, which is the hallmark of a good mystery story.

Before the movie was released, I wondered where it fell on the spectrum between Austin Powers, (a raunchy R-rated comedy that I was forced to watch in high school while on a bus but nevertheless ended up enjoying) and Scary Movie, (which even my more worldly younger brother felt was gratuitously raunchy). Having now seen it, I think that it falls on an entirely different spectrum, alongside Brain Candy and Dogma. Those are R-rated comedies involving sex jokes, toilet humor, and drug references (the latter is unavoidable in the case of Brain Candy, which is about a chemist at a pharmaceutical company who develops a new antidepressant). Nevertheless, in each of those cases, though the comedy is silly and sometimes raunchy, there’s substance to each of them and a genuine desire to say something significant. I think Happytime Murders also wants to say something significant regarding racism and prejudice, as well as friendship and trust. Whether it succeeded or not is up for debate, but to me it’s almost beside the point; I applaud the effort regardless.

I don’t want to get too deep into comparing Happytime Murders with Jim Henson’s oeuvre, as I think Brian Henson should be judged as a filmmaker in his own right and not have to exist constantly in his father’s shadow, but since some have questioned how Happytime reflects on Jim Henson’s legacy, I would point out that its prevailing themes are themes that Jim frequently explored in his work, so I think Happytime dovetails nicely with Jim’s work while still being separate and distinct from it.

Which is not to say that the movie is without flaws. While the mystery aspect is well crafted, I have some issues with the narrative that I cannot address without giving away plot details, which I would prefer to save for another review (perhaps). Without going into specifics, I can say that I was very disappointed with the resolution of the plot after the killer was revealed. For one thing, it wrapped up way too neatly; in reality, there would have been repercussions that would have complicated the denouement… but then again, in reality, puppets are not alive, so perhaps complaining about a lack of realism is unnecessarily splitting hairs. The killer, when uncovered, is found to have a sympathetic motive, but the movie undercuts that almost immediately. There was redemption at the end, but it all belonged to Phil. There was an opportunity for the killer to gain at least a small measure of redemption as well, but it was not taken, which is not necessarily a flaw but something of a disappointment for me. Rumors that I have been unable to substantiate suggest that the movie was heavily cut for time, which may explain some of the plot holes.

But what the movie may be lacking in story, it makes up for in characterization of the two protagonists, and I think that is due at least as much to the performers as to the writing, and maybe more so. Of course, we know that Bill Barretta is a fantastic puppeteer because of his work with the Muppets, but I am not sure that we’ve ever seen him play a character with quite so much pathos. Bill not only makes Phil completely believable but unexpectedly vulnerable and entirely likable underneath his hard-bitten, world-weary exterior. As for Melissa McCarthy, I generally don’t have strong feelings about her either way, but I felt that she made a very good and convincing cop, and the chemistry between her and Bill/Phil was quite lovely. Right away you can tell that the characters have a lot of history; eventually, their poignant backstory is revealed, and it’s actually quite heartbreaking. It’s always refreshing to see a platonic relationship between male and female leads in a movie, and it’s really heartwarming to see the evolution of the relationship between these two (both in flashback and in the movie’s present) from close friendship to crisis to betrayal to mistrust and then back to fire-forged friendship.

(I don’t want to draw parallels between the movie and the Schism, because I’m afraid that that’s going to get tedious, but I’ll just say that Brian Henson’s own movie has a lesson to teach him about reconciling with Steve Whitmire if he cares to pay attention.)

Of the other human actors in the movie, they were all great, but I want to specifically mention Joel McHale, because so few seem to have much to say about him one way or the other, but for my money, he gave the funniest performance in the whole movie with his arrogantly smarmy FBI persona (particularly the scene where he keeps ordering people/puppets to put down their weapons when they’ve already done so; it’s a gag that might have fallen flat were it not for McHale’s delivery).

Among the thoughtful reviews of the movie (i.e., those whose opinions were not informed by a knee-jerk negative reaction to the trailer), there seems to be some feeling that the racism in the movie was more of an informed trait. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but I agree that the discrimination that the puppet characters faced was somewhat vague and inconsistent. My impression was of a world in which puppet characters may have been recently been granted some rights through legislative and/or judicial means but had yet to overcome the prejudice in the hearts and minds of much of the human populace. For example, human/puppet marriage is apparently legal, but I imagine there are some bakers in the Happytime world who still refuse to make a human/puppet couple a wedding cake.

In any case, we can debate the logic, consistency, or story relevance of the anti-puppet prejudice in the movie, but it has some real-life parallels that are actually pretty disturbing. Just as puppets in Happytime world are expected to sing, dance, entertain, and not do much else, disenfranchised groups throughout history have been forced to play the clown for the ruling hegemony, going back to the “bread and circuses” of the Roman Empire and minstrelsy of 19th- and early-20th century America. Fraggle Rock addressed this phenomenon in a 1983 episode, and I’m also reminded of a satirical comment on a 1960s movie from Mystery Science Theater 3000. In America (and elsewhere, I’m sure) there used to be segregated hospitals that would refuse to treat you, even if you were bleeding out in the entryway, if your skin was the “wrong” color. And maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the trafficking of puppet feet reminds me of the sometimes violent persecution of albinos in Tanzania. 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in Happytime Murders. It’s more than just fluff. It may not be to everyone’s taste, and that’s fine, but I’m puzzled by the unwarranted vitriol it has garnered. I think a big part of the problem was the marketing. In fairness, I imagine that this must have been a hard movie to market. Emphasizing the puppet aspect probably would have resulted in clueless parents bringing their kids. Focusing on the mystery aspect probably would have alienated the mystery crowd, who would have been confused as to why the movie has puppets. And focusing on the heart and the pathos probably would have bored everyone except people like me who enjoy that sort of thing. 

So I understand why they chose to emphasize the comedy aspect, but I think putting the raunchiest jokes in the trailer with little-to-no context ended up working against them, although it did ensure that no one had plausible deniability as to the R-rated content. But I think where they really screwed themselves over was in antagonizing Sesame Workshop. They should have learned from the example of Mitt Romney and his failed 2012 presidential bid that getting on Sesame’s bad side doesn’t win you a lot of good will from the public. 

As for me, and without harping on about it, it’s a very bizarre feeling for me to love Brian’s movie so much, and want it to do well, while still being so angry at him for badmouthing Steve last year. I don’t anticipate ever having the opportunity to meet Brian, and in a way, I hope I never do, because I wouldn’t know whether I wanted to hug him or punch him in the face. 

In any case, regardless of its flaws, the movie itself is quite enjoyable if you manage expectations and get in the proper frame of mind first. Its performance thus far is disappointing, but I’m hopeful that it will find its audience someday.

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