Puppetry / Special Effects: B+
If anyone or anything is getting murdered here, it's the movie The Happytime Murders itself -- 23% "Rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes; score of 27 on MetaCritic; one movie critic whose opinion and point of view I have long respected has repeatedly called it "painfully unfunny." By virtually all accounts, this movie is one giant pile of shit.
In other words, I did this movie a huge favor but coming in with "giant pile of shit" as the bar by which to judge it. So instead of leaving it thinking, Well, that was disappointing, I left it thinking, That wasn't a giant pile of shit at all!
Because The Happytime Murders has its moments. To be clear, it doesn't have a lot of them -- but they're there. At least two or three times, I laughed pretty hard. Granted, for every such moment, there were ten moments clearly designed to be funny that fell completely flat.
Let's call this movie one hell of a missed opportunity. It could have been great. The trouble is, with movies that wear their irreverence on their sleeve, where the basic gimmick is little more than their penchant for raunchiness, rarely does it come out very well in the end. Maybe it's because too many people with such base senses of humor actually have an eye of genuine quality. You really can find high-quality raunchy humor, but that's still not a Venn diagram that has much of an overlap.
Why doesn't someone just adapt the semi-notorious Off Broadway play Avenue Q into a movie? That would have been a far better idea. Granted, if you're really honest, even Avenue Q is slightly overrated. Instead, we get Jim Henson's son Brian Henson, using his name in a way that is itself a flat-falling punch line: I can turn my dad's beloved wholesome ideas of puppet character into something pointlessly crass! It'll be hilarious!
I mean -- it could have been hilarious, had he worked with writers who could actually come up with a barrage of good jokes. This movie has only a few good jokes, and of course half of them are used up in the trailer -- including the idea that an orgasming muppet ejaculates silly string. That's pretty funny.
The premise, all things considered, is fine -- except for one pesky little detail. Phil Philips (voiced commendably by Bill Barretta) is a puppet ex-cop now working as a private investigator, tasked with solving the mystery of the cast of a nineties sitcom starring puppets called The Happytime Gang. He and his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy, who I love, but frankly, she's usually better than what she has to offer here) reluctantly rejoin forces to work the case, and in so doing work through the resentments of a backstory I won't spoil here, even though it doesn't matter because you don't need to see this.
Oh, and that pesky little detail? In this world, focused here on Los Angeles, puppets are effectively second-class citizens, looked down upon by all humans. Given what's going on in the world right now, and The Happytime Murders's refusal to mine this idea for anything even close to insightful, this isn't just truly terrible timing (never a great sign in comedy). It trivializes real-world issues to the point of being insulting.
But, okay. There's a couple of memorable (or eye-searing, depending on your point of view) sight gags. The people making this movie clearly had a blast, and somehow that does make a little difference. Maya Rudolph shows up as Phil Philips's secretary, and here is a woman who can sharpen the flattest of humor around here no matter where she's at. It remains on some level a kick to see her in any of her scenes. Elizabeth Banks gets a supporting role too, but, like so much of this movie, is generally wasted on pointlessness at worst and mediocrity at best.
So, I wouldn't go so far as to call The Happytime Murders "painfully unfunny." I've seen plenty such movies, and didn't quite get that from this. It is, however . . . just not very funny. And for this to work, it really should have been very funny. It could have been, but Brian Henson & co. were much more concerned with achieving relatively impressive puppetry with both practical skill and green screen than with infusing their script with consistent wit. In other words, just because this movie isn't nearly as terrible as many would have you believe still doesn't mean you have any reason to see it.