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The Happytime Murders review: Salty caper may have seemed like a good idea on paper but it isn't

 

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Porn to be wild: Melissa McCarthy is wasted in her role next to Detective Phil Philips

Porn to be wild: Melissa McCarthy is wasted in her role next to Detective Phil Philips

Porn to be wild: Melissa McCarthy is wasted in her role next to Detective Phil Philips

Do The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Bert and Ernie, and Kermit the Frog hold any sentimental value for you? If so, this may be a film to avoid. The idea for The Happytime Murders has been knocking around Hollywood for at least a decade, and is the brainchild of Brian Henson, youngest son of Muppet inventor Jim Henson, who may possibly be turning in his grave. Because this film transports Henson-like puppets into a hard-boiled parallel universe that might have been invented by James Ellroy.

In Happytime Murders, puppets swear, smoke, drink and have sex: they even have drug problems and an unhealthy interest in porn. This basic premise - 'look, the puppet is saying f**k!' - might have been an amusing one, and in fact when I saw the trailer I reckoned we could be in for a bad taste treat. There are fine comic actresses among the supporting human cast: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks and the reliably brilliant Maya Rudolph. In the right hands, Happytime could and should have worked, but it emphatically doesn't.

There are, to begin with, things we should be grateful for. None of the characters from The Muppets or Sesame Street make cameos, so we're spared the gory details of Kermit and Miss Piggy's sex life, or revelations about the Cookie Monster's heroin addiction. These are new puppets, fresh minted and fairly reprehensible for the most part, though, in fairness, they're forced to live as second class citizens in an alternate Los Angeles.

Phil Philips (voiced by Phil Barretta) is the Sam Spade of the piece, a tough and cynical LA private detective who used to be the city's only puppet cop until a scandal forced him out. Now he investigates divorce cases and marital scandals with the help of his redoubtable human secretary, Bubbles (Rudolph). Phil's intrigued when a glamorous female puppet called Sandra White (voiced by Doreen Davies) comes to his office and asks for his help. Turns out Ms White is being blackmailed, and when Phil follows a strong lead to a local porn shop, he witnesses the murder of a puppet rabbit called Mr Bumblypants, who used to be an actor on a hit TV sitcom called Happytime.

He soon realises that a killer is targeting former cast members, one of whom is Phil's wealthy brother Larry. And things get worse when his former partner Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy) turns up to investigate.

Edwards detests Phil, and we eventually find out why, but the pair must put their differences aside if they're to stop the killer from murdering every puppet in Actor's Equity.

There are ways in which Happytime Murders might have succeeded. Early on, analogies are made between the puppets' predicament and racial segregation. Phil is blue, but his hammy brother dyed himself white, Jackson-style, in the hope of being accepted. It seems to have worked, because at one point we see him cavorting in a jacuzzi with a human girlfriend (how they negotiate intercourse is mercifully kept from us). But this racist undercurrent is only half-heartedly explored before being dropped altogether, one of the crass and lazy screenplay's many shortcomings.

Sugar is to puppets as cocaine is to humans, another funny idea that merely seems depressing in practice. In fact, this whole film is pretty depressing. Henson Jr and his friends might have thought that watching puppets' heads explode into great feathery clouds during gunfire was hilarious: instead, it's strangely distressing, and you worry for the little balls of felt whatever their various psycho-sexual shortcomings.

McCarthy is as likeable and amusing as ever, despite the constraints placed on her, and Rudolph manages to make her thinly drawn character work. But Banks' considerable comic talents are thrown away, and while the film's puppets might be prolifically disgusting, they're not very funny.

What Happytime Murders lacks in spades is charm, and its script is not witty enough to earn its gross-out moments. Puppets should not ejaculate.

Happytime Murders
(16, 91mins)
TWO STARS

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