There’s a kernel of a good idea rattling around “The Happytime Murders,” a foul-mouthed and underwritten mash-up of “Avenue Q” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” that seems to have only one purpose: To reclaim puppetry from the precincts of the family-friendly.
Director Brian Henson, son of Muppets founder Jim Henson and himself director of “A Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island,” isn’t exactly breaking new ground with this notion. After all, his father created raunchy Muppet sketches for the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” way back in 1975.
But here, in a story set in a Los Angeles where puppets are an oppressed minority, they’re decidedly not playing it safe. Scenes of puppet-centric porn, puppet prostitutes serving up a little “rotten cotton,” puppets snorting sugar like it’s cocaine, and a puppet ejaculating silly string are par for the course — but there’s more shock value than genuine laughs. (It doesn’t help that most of the scenes mentioned were in the movie’s red-band trailer.)
The setting is a modern Los Angeles where puppets live alongside humans — though they are an oppressed minority, frequently maligned and teased for being short and made of felt and foam. Our hero is Phil Philips (performed by Bill Barretta), a private eye who was the first puppet on the LAPD — until, as the inevitable newspaper-clipping backstory montage tells us, he was drummed out of the force, in a hostage situation gone wrong involving his partner. That partner, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), now hates Phil’s fluffy guts, and vice versa.
So, equally inevitably, they get assigned by Connie’s boss, Lt. Banning (“The Office’s” Leslie David Baker), to work together to solve a series of crimes. Someone is killing puppets across Los Angeles — all stars of a beloved ‘80s TV series, “The HappyTime Gang,” the first regular puppet-filled show on network TV. And each time one of them (including Phil’s brother, Larry) has died, Phil was in the vicinity.
Can Connie and Phil get over their animosity to solve the case? Can Connie prove Phil’s innocence to an obnoxious FBI agent (Joel McHale)? Can Phil also sort out the blackmail case of the seductive puppet Sandra? And can Phil overcome his heartbreak for the only human member of the HappyTime Gang, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), and keep her from being the next one killed?
After watching “The Happytime Murders,” the answer to all of the above is “Who cares?” Henson focuses on the puppetry, and bringing the puppet and human worlds together on a technical level, that he fails to notice how weak Todd Berger’s script is. The script feels like an early first draft, one where nobody came through later to write any real jokes.
The most genuine laughs come from scenes that feel ad-libbed by McCarthy, especially when she’s paired with her old “Bridesmaids” co-star Maya Rudolph, who plays Phil’s forever-loyal secretary. Their moments have a breezy humor of which the rest of “The Happytime Murders” should have been stuffed full.
‘The Happytime Murders’
Opens Friday, August 24, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material. Running time: 91 minutes.