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‘Happytime Murders’ shortchanges us on comedy

“The Happytime Murders” is a movie full of puppet sex and puppet violence. And the vulgarities that come out of its puppets’ mouths would be enough to earn an R-rating on their own. It’s intentionally a very raunchy comedy.

But even though it delivers on the raunch, it so shortchanges us on the comedy that the movie falls flat long before it’s over.

I acknowledge there’s something inherently funny about watching puppets do very adult activities like gambling, taking drugs, swearing, and having sex. The contrast between soft, cuddly puppets and the very sleazy film noir world they inhabit in “The Happytime Murders” is fundamentally humorous. It’s shocking and laugh-out-loud funny the first time a desperate puppet propositions Melissa McCarthy for oral sex or a cow gets milked by an octopus in a very sexual way, or even when an assassin mows down various puppets, sending stuffing flying everywhere.

But the shock of the new wears off quickly. Thirty minutes or so of “f-bombs,” dirty jokes, and outrageous sex acts, even when done by muppet-knockoffs, gets tiring. And there’s another sixty minutes still to go.

The purported plot revolves around a series of murders of former TV star puppets. The victims are all castmembers of The Happytime Gang, a (fictional) show from the 90s. A femme fatale puppet hires a private eye, and ex-cop, puppet named Phil Phillips to investigate the crimes. Phil is eventually teamed with his former human partner on the police force, Detective Connie Edwards, played by McCarthy.

McCarthy is very good as the human detective who can be every bit as gross as her gross puppet counterparts. Maya Rudolph is also very funny
in the too-small role of Phillip’s secretary. And finally, Joel McHale is completely wasted in the even smaller role of an FBI agent.

But as good as the cast is, it can’t make up for a script that is little more than a platform for R- and X-rated material. Granted, I laughed when a bunny puppet says, ‘It’s like Easter in my pants,” and when a visual reference to an infamous “Basic Instinct” shot proves crucial in solving the crime. But the movie can’t keep the jokes coming fast enough
to hold our interest.

The film occasionally suggests a little depth. Despite the fact that puppets and humans are living side-by-side each other, it’s quite clear that puppets are treated as second-class citizens. But this hint is never developed further. And when it’s revealed that the very human Edwards received a puppet liver in an emergency surgery, she ponders whether that makes her part puppet and if so, what that might mean for her future. But again, no follow-up.

Two very popular shows have already tilled similar ground and did so much more effectively. Puppet sex was first introduced to the world in the hilarious movie “Team America: World Police.” And more significantly, the brilliant Broadway musical “Avenue Q” presented a hilarious look at well-rounded plush puppets who could be raunchy one moment and very “human” and vulnerable the next.

By those standards, “The Happytime Murders” is a disappointment. But if you lower your standards, and just want to kick back and enjoy a few good rude, crude sex jokes, than this film just might be your happytime.

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