Development Hell (No): Why ‘THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS’ failed when it should’ve succeeded
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
We’ve been waiting for nearly a decade to see the Black List script for THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – a dark comedy-noir mix of SESAME STREET and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? – come to cinematic fruition. And the results are a feeble attempt at what should’ve been clever, cutting material.
The project, spearheaded by Brian Henson, was relegated to development hell for what felt (get it?) like forever. They cast ingénue after ingénue and switched production companies (from Lionsgate to STX) until it finally went into production. There was a family lawsuit to contend with as well. Then we finally got what we deserved.
They had ten years – a lifetime in screenwriter years – to keep their idea relevant, resonant and resoundingly funny. They failed. In this final iteration after a long gestation, director Brian Henson delivers a fairly generic, seedy, loathsome film with little ingenuity applied. It’s where “ha-ha-ha’s” quickly curdle into “ew-ew-ew’s.” While it can be laugh-out-loud hilarious (usually whenever star Melissa McCarthy’s character is needlessly cussing out her co-workers), audiences might not feel great about what conjured that laughter.
Maybe if the plot wasn’t something we’ve seen a thousand times before, it would fare better. As a dark-comedy/ noir, the narrative is far too bland and predictable to sustain audience interest. This is where chuckle-filled bits, one-liners and gags should help buoy the proceedings, only those aren’t there. In a world where puppets are treated as second-class citizens (“sock” is a frequent derogatory term slung at them), two estranged detectives – puppet P.I. Phil Phillips (puppeteer Bill Barretta) and LAPD Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) – are forced to reunite to solve the ongoing murders of the cast of an 80’s TV show. Inevitable double-crosses and twists ensue as these two learn to work together again. However, the real case they should be working on is the mystery of the missing innovation.
Henson and screenwriter Todd Berger (whose film IT’S A DISASTER is a gem of a witty wonder) may think the film is daring and envelope-pushing – showing puppets having graphic sex, engaging in drug use, and spewing filthy language – but it’s actually not. These are all things we’ve seen done before and to better effect.
In 1989, MEET THE FEEBLES was the first of its kind to put a ribald adult spin on such a wholesome pastime as puppetry was viewed in media. Before that we primarily associated it with children’s entertainers like Edgar Bergen’s “Charlie McCarthy,” Shari Lewis’ “Lamb Chop,” Howdy Doody, MR. ROGER’S NEIGHBORHOOD and, of course, SESAME STREET. Director Peter Jackson’s irrevocably altered this art’s course, inspiring others to do the same.
Beginning in 2002 and lasting 13 episodes, GREG THE BUNNY (a sitcom spun off from a series of shorts that aired on IFC) envisioned a very similar world where lowly puppets (or “fabricated Americans” as he preferred to be referred as) – specifically a bunny – co-exists in a world with humans. The world creators Spencer Chinoy, Steven Levitan and Dan Milano built on the show isn’t too dissimilar to HAPPYTIME’s, especially when it comes to the societal context in which puppets are classified. Plus, they both feature rabbit characters.
In 2003, we saw a more direct translation of the “SESAME STREET for adults” pitch with the absolutely genius AVENUE Q. The musical, a coming of age parable, told in two acts satirizes and addresses social issues and anxieties – like racism, porn and the growing pains of adulthood. Songs like “It Sucks To Be Me,” “The Internet Is For Porn,” and “Everybody’s A Little Bit Racist Sometimes” broke the mold.
2004 brought us Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s audacious TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, which featured marionette puppets engaging in wild tomfoolery. This film’s infamous sex scene is an indelible part of this film and seems to serve as the inspiration to the one featured in HAPPYTIME.
All that said, the creators of HAPPYTIME have very clearly learned the wrong lessons from the aforementioned media. Instead of witty world-building, smart satire, and cutting social commentary, the filmmakers cook up reductive gags and stale ideas.
With exception of one clever scene, the filmmakers forget to mine the world they’ve created for all its worth. The puppet prejudice storyline (similarly explored in BRIGHT’s world of humans and orcs) is trite and pat. They think they “solve racism” by film’s end, but they really don’t. Sure, there’s a certain amount of absurdist humor that factors into Phil’s brother’s death, and also an almost buried one-liner where a puppet yells “I don’t have a squeaker in me,” at a dog barking at him. But the absurdity of this world completely disappears once we get to the second act. The sole time the shenanigans get minimally intriguing is when Detective Edwards snorts sugar like cocaine and drinks maple syrup like she’s guzzling bourbon. She gets hopped up on literal booger sugar (a nickname for cocaine, for the unaware) and goes nuts in an underground poker fight.
The ham-handed attempt at an edgy, but extremely dated reference to BASIC INSTINCT is probably the most egregious example of this film’s short-comings (pun intended): The allegedly repulsive though highly predictable sex acts escalate from a cow being milked in an overtly sexual way (eye-roll #1), to a bondage porno featuring a Dalmatian puppet whipping a bound fireman (eye roll #2), to puppet prostitutes propositioning passersby (eye-roll #32), to a fully-clothed, explicit puppet sex scene, replete with elongated puppet cum (silly string naturally, eye-roll #76), before we get to the puppet version of the iconic crotch shot (I stopped counting eye-rolls by that point). They drew the line at boobs and butts, but went straight to a beaver shot that would make Paul Verhoeven say, “that’s too much.”
Describing this exercise in poor taste as lackluster entertainment is an understatement. It’s simply not enough to show puppets with potty mouths engaging in raunchy behavior. It should at least be genuinely funny – but the possibilities are squandered.
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is now playing.