Monday, September 17, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders was written by Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson. It was directed by Brian Henson.

Berger is an actor, director and writer, who's penned a ton of obscure short films and TV movies. He previously wrote The Scenesters (?), It's A Disaster (?) and Cover Versions (?). Robertson is also an actor, director and writer, who penned a similar list of shorts you've never heard of.

Amazingly, Brian Henson is the son of Jim Henson, the beloved creator of the Muppets (!). He previously directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. He also directed several episodes of puppet-centric TV series Dinosaurs and Farscape.

I can sum up this film with one simple word: dreadful. For a movie featuring puppets, it's incredibly bleak, sullen and joyless. In fact I can't remember the last time I saw a movie this grim. It's like someone decided to remake Requiem For A Dream with an all puppet cast.

The Happytime Murder's big selling point is the fact that it's an R-rated movie about puppets that murder, swear and have sex. Unfortunately, director Brian Henson seems to think this is all MUCH more hilarious than it actually is.

This "naughty puppet" shtick has been done to death over the years, in particular by Peter Jackson in Meet The Feebles. That movie came out in 1989, for Kermit's sake!

But hey, who cares if it's been done before as long as the movie's funny, right? Wrong. Sadly, The Happytime Murders is 100% laugh free, as the writers were so busy trying to shock and disgust the audience that they forgot to include any jokes.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that either. I sat stone-faced throughout the entire runtime, without uttering so much as a mild chuckle. I didn't even sort of breathe through my nose slightly harder than normal in a lazy approximation of a laugh.

Now I know what you're thinking— I'm probably some art house snob who thinks he's too good for lowbrow humor. Nothing could be further from the truth! I've seen many a film similar to this one, and enjoyed them quite a bit. I actually liked the aforementioned Meet The Feebles, laughed uproariously at Team America: World Police and was pleasantly surprised by Ted (which wasn't technically a puppet movie, but close enough). 
So it ain't me and my imagined highbrow tastes— there's just nothing to laugh at here.

OK, so the movie has no laughs. But you can at least immerse yourself in the story, right? Nope! The Happytime Murders cobbles together dozens of the most hackneyed cliches possible from every buddy cop, film noir and action movie ever made. Every aspect of the plot is tired, stale and predictable, and you can see it all coming down the street from a mile away.

For a movie with a $40 million budget, it looks incredibly uninspired and artless. The cinematography is non-existent, as everything's lit flat and shot wide. It looks more like a cheap TV movie than a theatrical release. Hell, I've seen better looking SNL movie parodies.

Many will likely be shocked when they learn that this vile film was directed by Brian Henson, son of Muppet creator Jim Henson. "Hear that high pitched whirring sound?" they'll say. "That's Jim Henson spinnin' in his grave!"

Believe it or not, just the opposite is true. The elder Henson believed puppets were for all ages, not just children. He spent much of his early career performing adult-oriented puppet skits (adult as in mature, not pornographic) on many a 1960s talk show, before eventually landing the Sesame Street gig.

Although Sesame Street made the Muppets a household name, Henson worried he'd be pigeonholed as a kid's entertainer, and spent the rest of his life struggling to break free of the label.

To that end, he produced The Land Of Gorch sketches for Season 1 of SNL, The Dark Crystal theatrical film and the Dinosaurs TV series. Heck, even The Muppet Show was aimed more toward adults than kids.

So the idea of an R-rated Henson film isn't as outlandish as it first seems. Brian Henson's simply continuing his father's crusade to create puppetry for adults. Unfortunately he went way overboard with this sleazy spectacle.

Amazingly, The Happytime Murders has been in development at The Jim Henson company since 2008! It was originally picked up by Lionsgate Studios in 2011, with Cameron Diaz set to star. When she wisely dropped out, the studio approached Katherine Heigl to replace her. 

Lionsgate lost the rights in 2015, and the film was picked up by STX Entertainment. At one point Jamie Foxx was rumored to star (?), before they finally settled on Melissa McCarthy.

Jesus Christ! This thing was in production for TEN freakin' years, and this was the best they could come up with?

In May 2018, the Sesame Workshop (producers of long-running children's show Sesame Street) sued STX Entertainment over its marketing campaign for The Happytime Murders. The tagline on the film's poster read, "No Sesame. All Street." 

Sesame Workshop believed this damaged their brand by implying a relationship between Sesame Street and the raunchy, R-rated film. I agree with them completely, and don't blame them one bit for wanting to distance themselves from this crude and repugnant film.

Unfortunately the courts believed differently, and ruled against Sesame Workshop. Sad.

To rub salt further into the wound, after the ruling STX released a poster with a new tagline reading, "From The Studio That Was Sued By Sesame Street." Ah, I get it. Everyone at STX is an asshole then.

It should come as no surprise that The Happytime Murders is a well-deserved and utter box office BOMB. It could only manage to scrape up a paltry $24 million WORLDWIDE against its modest $40 million budget. Holy Crap! How embarrassing. By the time you figure in the marketing, this cineturd will likely end up costing STX Entertainment studio $50 million or more.

I can attest to this lack of interest on the part of the public. The night I saw the movie, I was the ONLY person in the entire theater. I had my own private showing! Not a good sign!

After that I decided to start monitoring The Happytime Murders' ticket sales out of morbid curiosity, just to see how many people were showing up. Now that all the theaters in my city have reserved seating, you can go online and see how many tickets have been sold for any upcoming showing.

In the chart above, red seats are sold, while white ones are still available. Note the unbroken sea of white. The seating chart looked like this virtually EVERY night the film played at the theater near me.

The biggest crowd they ever had was on September 1st, when they sold a whopping TWO seats for the film! And on a Saturday night yet, the biggest movie-going day of the week! Not surprisingly, the film was only in my local cineplex for two weeks before they mercifully dumped it.

Sorry, Jim Henson. Adults just don't want to see raunchy puppets!


The Plot:
The film takes place in a universe in which puppets are living, breathing beings who coexist alongside humans. Unfortunately puppets are considered second class citizens, and are the subjects of prejudice, discrimination and physical abuse. Subtle!

Twenty years ago, The HappyTime Gang was the most popular show on TV. The series broke new ground, as it was the first to feature an all-puppet cast, including Coach Lyle, Officer Shenanigans, postman Mr. Bumblypants, Handyman Goofer and British twins Ezra and Cara. It also starred a token human character, next door neighbor Jenny. 

In the present day, Phil Phillips (played by puppeteer Bill Barretta) is a world-weary puppet private investigator working in L.A. (where else?). He was once the first puppet cop on the LAPD, working alongside his human partner, Detective Connie Edwards. Sadly, he was fired after an arrest went seriously wrong.

Phil arrives at his detective agency, where his human secretary Bubbles (played by Maya Rudolph) tells him there's a client waiting for him in his office. Inside he meets a beautiful and sexy puppet named Sandra White, who says claims being blackmailed. She gives him a note from her blackmailer, which is composed of individual letters clipped from magazines. Phil thinks he recognizes one of the letters, and agrees to take her case.

Keep in mind all these tired old film noir cliches happen in the first five minutes of the movie. One more and it's gonna collapse under the weight of them all.

Phil visits a local puppet porn shop to investigate the letter. He walks in and sees a puppet octopus milking a puppet cow, which isn't really a sex act, but whatever. These are the movie's jokes, folks! 

He verifies that one of the letters in the blackmail note came from a porn mag, and for some reason believes it was sold in this shop. Maybe there's only one puppet porn shop in town? Anyway, he asks the owner if he keeps detailed records on who buys what mags (?). The owner says of course, and tells him to feel free to look through his files. I think that might have been a joke, but I'm honestly not sure.

Phil runs into Mr. Bumblypants, one of the former stars of The Happytime Gang. Bumblypants is embarrassed to be seen buying porn, and nervously rushes off. Phil goes to the back room to look through the owner's records.

Just then, a mysterious hooded figure enters and shoots everyone in the shop, including Mr. Bumblypants. The puppets' heads all graphically erupt in disturbing explosions of cotton and felt. Um... ha ha, I guess?

The police arrive soon after, accompanied by Police Lieutenant Banning (played by Leslie David Baker of The Office fame). He's a typical stereotypical police chief, the kind who screams and demands the badges of his detectives. Banning was Phil's former boss, and is suspicious of his presence at the crime scene.

Just then Phil's former partner Edwards (played by Melissa McCarthy) enters, and takes a look around. She declares the crime scene a robbery gone bad, but Phil disagrees, as the cash register's still full of money. He believes it was cold blooded murder.

Later than day, Phil has lunch with his brother Larry, who played Officer Shenanigans on The Happytime Gang. Larry's desperately trying to get more acting gigs by looking more human, going so far as getting a nose job and bleaching his blue skin. 
I guess there's a jab at Hollywood somewhere in there.

Larry excitedly tells Phil that The Happytime Gang is about to go into syndication, and the entire cast stands to make millions off the residuals (PLOT POINT!). Phil's still thinking about the porn shop murder, and tells Larry to be careful.

That night, Larry's at his home in his hot tub with a human woman. She goes into the kitchen to make some drinks, and while she's gone, the hooded figure reappears. It looses a couple of tiny lapdogs, which grab Larry and literally tear him to pieces.

The next day Phil finds Larry torn to shreds. When Lt. Banning arrives, Phil tells him he thinks someone's targeting the cast of The Happytime Gang, but isn't sure why. To Phillips' horror, Banning tells him to team up with Edwards and figure it out.

The two then "comically" bicker to fill up the runtime, each lighting up a cigarette and blowing smoke in one another's faces. Oh, movie, stop it! My sides are hurting! No wait... make that my stomach's churning. 

Phil and Edwards pay a visit to Ronovan Scargle (HAW! Funny names are funny!), the human producer of The Happytime Gang. He tells them about the syndication contract, and says the money will be equally divided between the entire cast of the show. If any of the stars should tragically die, the rest will get the deceased's share. This confirms Phil's suspicion that someone's targeting the Happytime cast.

They then go to the seamy side of town, filled with puppet addicts and whores. Phil locates Lyle, another former cast member who's now a powerful drug lord. Lyle refuses to let Edwards into his den, as she's a human. Phil says it's OK, since she has a transplanted puppet liver. Yep, you read right. Somehow a flesh & blood human has a liver made of fabric and cotton. This makes absolutely no sense, but again, let's just roll with it or we'll be here all day.

While Phil pokes around, Lyle insists Edwards partake in the puppet drug of choice
— sugar. Edwards is reluctant at first, but eventually snorts a line of rock candy or something through a Twizzler. This apparently makes her high (?), and she joins Lyle's perpetual poker game. I... I don't understand what's happening. Why would sugar affect a human like tha... you know what, I don't care. Let's just move on.

A fat dog puppet (confusingly, puppets can be animals as well as people) calls one of his bitches a ho, or maybe one of his hoes a bitch, I dunno. This angers Edwards, and she beats the living crap out of the puppet thugs until the dog apologizes. Again, I think this was supposed to be funny, but I just don't know.

Phil takes Lyle out in the alley to warn him about the murders. Just then, the hooded figure appears and murders Lyle and his bodyguards. Nice work there, Phil!

Phil returns to his office and finds Sandra (remember her from an hour ago?) waiting for him. She says she received another message from her blackmailer. This time it's an X-rated photo of her and Jenny, the human cast member of The Happytime Gang. She reveals that she and Jenny are secretly married, and the blackmailer's threatening to expose them unless she pays up or something.

Sandra then announces she's also a nymphomaniac, and seduces Phil. He resists at first, but eventually gives in and the two have rough, violent puppet sex right there in his office.

Just then Lt. Banning arrives with FBI Agent Campbell (played by a slumming Joel McHale), who's been brought in to investigate the puppet murders. They demand to see Phil, but Bubbles tells him he's "with a client." Cue Phil climaxing, as he uncontrollably squirts Silly String all over his office, including the translucent door. That's right, puppets apparently cum Silly String. I'm so sorry you all had to read that.

Just when you thought the movie couldn't become any more vile, Edwards visits Skid Row to search for Goofer. She's propositioned by a couple of puppet hookers, who think she's a man. Amazingly, this gender confusion becomes a running joke in the movie. 

She finds Goofer in a filthy flophouse, strung out on sugar. Edwards asks Goofer if he knows anything about the murders, but he's too far gone to provide any info. He does however offer to give her a blowjob for 50 cents, again, thinking she's a man. Comedy ahoy!

Edwards declines Goofer's proposition, but steals his sugar, revealing she's secretly an addict as well. I guess this is due to her puppet liver, but I'm not really sure.

The next morning, Phil and Edwards receive a call about another puppet death. You guessed it
— they discover Goofer dead under a pier after he allegedly overdosed and fell into the surf.

Phil then visits a strip club, where Jenny (played by a much-too-good-for-this Elizabeth Banks) works as a pole dancer. We find out that she and Phil were once a couple, but broke up after things didn't work out. He warns her about the murders, and she says she'll be careful as she gets into her car. Right on cue, it explodes with her in it. 

Phil rushes to the car to try and save her, but she's too far gone The police arrive, spot Phil next to the car and think he killed Jenny. He takes off running.

Phil shows up at Edwards' apartment, which seems like the first place the police would look, but whatever. He finds her passed out in a sugar coma, and begins cleaning her filthy apartment for some reason. He grabs all the sugar in the place and dumps it down the sink.

As he does so, he flashes back to the incident that got him fired from the police force, and ended his partnership with Edwards. A routine arrest went wrong when a puppet crook grabbed Edwards and held a gun to her head. Phil  aimed at the crook but hesitated, afraid he'd hit his partner. Eventually he fired, but missed the thug. The bullet ricocheted off a pole and hit an innocent puppet, killing him in front of his young daughter. The thug then shot Edwards, hitting in in the liver. Fortunately she managed to kill him as he ran. 

Phil then rushed to Edwards' side, and took her to a nearby puppet hospital for treatment. As they had no human organs there, the doctors transplanted a puppet liver into Edwards (???).

After Edwards recovered, she testified against Phil, claiming he was unwilling to shoot a fellow puppet. Phil denied the accusation, but was thrown off the force. There was even a law drafted, which prohibited puppets from serving as cops from that point on.

Edwards then wakes up, snapping Phil out of his flashback. He tells her he's now wanted for the murders, and reluctantly asks for her help. They drive out to a remote farm, looking for Ezra and Cara, the final two cast members of The Happytime Gang. Inside the house they're disturbed to find two of the "Kissing Cousins" deformed, inbred kids. They then discover Ezra and Cara's lifeless bodies lying on their bed.

Just then the mystery figure bolts from the house, and Phil and Edwards give chase. Unfortunately Agent Campbell shows up with the police and arrests Phil, allowing the mystery figure to get away.

Back at the station, Edwards tries to tell Campbell that Phil isn't the murderer, but he doesn't believe her. For some reason, he has Sandra brought in and questions her. She lies and says Phil killed the Happytime cast, including her secret human wife Jenny, so he could have her all to himself. What? So I guess she expects us to believe that once Phil murdered Sandra's wife, she'd fall lovingly into his arms? Did anyone read through this script before they filmed it?

Anyway, as Sandra monologues all this, she uncrosses her legs, Basic Instinct-style, exposing her genitals and revealing she has purple yarn for pubic hair. Believe it or not, this actually becomes a goddamned plot point in the film. Agent Campbell believes her story and has Phil thrown into a cell. Edwards flips out and denounces Campbell and the others, prompting Banning to remove her from the case.

Bubbles arrives at Edwards' apartment and begs her to help prove Phil's innocence. They look up Sandra's address and break into her place. Inside they find a "conspiracy room," complete with the standard wall full of photos connected by pieces of yarn.

Edwards then notes a photo of Jasper Jacoby, the puppet Phil accidentally shot and killed. She notices a puppet girl with purple hair in the photo as well. Edwards thinks back to Sandra's interrogation, and her purple pubic hair (told you it was a plot point). She puts two and two together and realizes Sandra is Jacoby's daughter. She's the one who's been murdering the Happytime cast, in order to frame Phil and avenge her father's death. OK, I get the revenge angle, but what was the point of killing all the other puppets? Eh, I honestly don't care at this point.

Just then Bubbles sees a tape recorder on a desk and pushes "play." Unfortunately it's a booby trap, which starts a fire that destroys the room and leaving Edwards with no evidence. Convenient!

Edwards returns to the police station and breaks Phil out of jail. They speed to the airport, somehow knowing Sandra will be there. They find her carrying a briefcase filled with the Happytime residual money, hurrying through the concourse. Phil approaches Sandra and says he's sorry he killed her father, as his death haunts him every day.

Suddenly Jenny appears (GASP!), and announces she's been in on the scheme the whole time. The two of them are leaving the country together with the residual money to live out their lives in wealth and luxury.

Just then Sandra knocks out Jenny, intent on fleeing the country alone (?). Edwards runs after her, but Sandra grabs her and points a gun at her head. It's a replay of the Phil's past, as he has to shoot Sandra in order to save Edwards.

This time Phil doesn't hesitate, and simply fires, hitting Sandra in the head and killing her instantly. Well, that was anticlimactic.

Lt. Banning arrives and for some reason congratulates Phil and Edwards, instead of arresting them for the dozens of laws they broke in the last few hours. He reinstates Phil as a policeman, and makes him and Edwards official partners again. 
Phil then asks Bubbles out on a date, and she happily accepts.

The theater lights then come on, and the two people in the audience wake up, gather their  belongings and shuffle out.


• The Happytime Murders opens with a montage that establishes the idea that puppets are a minority race in this world, and are discriminated against by humans. The puppets are obviously very thinly disguised stand-ins for blacks and other marginalized groups. 

Even though this is far from a new idea, in the hands of a competent director it could have been clever and relevant. Unfortunately Brian Henson is not that director, and executes the concept with all the subtlety of a giant inflatable mallet, hitting you over the head with it repeatedly as it squeaks with every blow.

To make things even worse, the idea is virtually dropped after the first five minutes, and rarely if ever brought up again. I guess using puppets to make a serious statement about race relations in this country was too much like work, so Henson just shoved it aside.

• There's something about this movie's core concept that's bugging me, but probably won't bother anyone else. It's the fact that this world is co-inhabited by living, breathing puppets— complete with visible legs and feet.

A puppet is NOT a self-contained entity. A puppet has no legs, and usually ends at the torso. A puppet is controlled by a human by sticking their hand up its ass. 

That's why it's jarring to me when I see the puppets in this movie walking around on two legs. In my opinion they're no longer puppets, but some kind of fuzzy, autonomous life form.

Note that 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit did something pretty much the same thing, but with cartoon characters. It worked there though, because it's easier to accept a cartoon walking around than it is a puppet.

And yes, I'm fully aware I'm putting wayyyyyy too much thought into the mechanics of this fictional world.

• This is also some heavy duty nitpicking, but whatever. 
Most of the puppets in the film are humanoid in appearance, while a few are clearly talking animals. But they're all supposed to be the same race, right? Homo Puppis or something like that? Or are there different species of the puppet genus?

Again, Who Framed Roger Rabbit did the same thing, as it featured toons who were both human and animal, so I guess I can't fault The Happytime Murders too much for following the same pattern.

• Given the movie's Henson pedigree, I was surprised by how incredibly bland the puppets looked. There's no style to them whatsoever, as their designs are all as generic as possible.

I get that the movie likely couldn't use the patented Muppet look, but Jesus Christ! Give us something interesting to look at, cantcha? Phil Phillips looks exactly like something a student would make in an Introduction To Puppetry class at a community college.

The Happytime Gang TV series plays a huge role in the movie, but oddly enough we barely see it. We get a very short ten second clip from the show in the first act, and that's it!

Same goes for the cast of the show. Other than brief glimpse, the only time we ever see any of them is right before they're murdered.

The film definitely needed to take a bit more time introducing and establishing The Happytime Gang. It's hard to get too worked up by their deaths when we've barely seen them and know nothing about them. They're not characters, they're props that exist only to move the plot (such as it is) forward.

• As I mentioned before, The Happytime Murders is a 100% laugh-free movie. 

There are few jokes in the film to begin with, and the ones used are tired, worn out and lethargic. The writers put the least amount of effort possible into their jokes, and as a result they thud to the ground like bricks. 

Here're a few examples of the sparkling humor on display in The Happytime Murders:

— The main character's name is Phil Phillips. When I first heard that, I assumed it was a joke, and all puppets would have similar repetitive names, like John Johnson, Richard Richardson and so on. That might actually have skirted the outer borders of humor. 

But nope! Phil's the only one with such a name. So I'm honestly not sure whether his moniker's supposed to be a joke or not.

— There's a running gag in which various puppet characters keep mistaking Melissa McCarthy's Edwards character for a man. Granted, she's not a particularly attractive woman, but ha, I guess?

— Several times in the film, Phil and Edwards troll the pompous Agent Campbell by using the old "Asshole says what?" line. Christ's Pajamas, that "joke" was old BEFORE movies were even invented. It boggles my mind that someone used it in a mainstream studio film in the year 2018.

— The filmmakers just couldn't help themselves, and had to go and include a Basic Instinct parody. Timely! That movie came out in freakin' 1992!

As you might expect, there's nothing clever or witty about this reference, as it's an uninspired recreation of the real thing. In an "hilarious" twist, this scene demonstrates that puppets have yarn for public hair. Sigh...

— The film's most infamous joke is no doubt the puppet sex scene, in which Phil uncontrollably ejaculates ridiculous amounts of Silly String all over his office for what seems like a full three minutes of screen time. 

According to Phil Phillips puppeteer Drew Massey, the ejaculation scene was originally much shorter. STX Entertainment demanded the scene be lengthened (no pun intended) after test audiences allegedly loved it. Supposedly the cast and crew watched the finished scene and couldn't contain their laughter.

Apparently there must have a gas leak in the studio that caused all the guffawing, because there's nothing remotely funny about the scene.

So how did this work? Did the movie get permission from the Silly String people in order to use their product? Or is this the most bizarre case of product placement ever, and Silly String Inc. paid the movie to include it? If so, they must be so very, very proud.

• There's exactly one semi-clever bit in the entire movie. In an effort to land more acting roles, Phil's brother Larry gets a nose job and bleaches his felt skin (with real bleach!) to try and look more human. OK, now that's funny! Why couldn't the rest of the jokes have been like that?

• About halfway through this interminable film, we find out Edwards has a transplanted puppet liver. How the hell?

It's established early on that despite the fact that they're somehow alive, the puppets in this world are made of felt and stuffed with cotton.

Director Brian Henson even confirms this, saying, "I was adamant, I don’t want to do blood. So when you shoot a puppet, it just blows up into a bunch of fluff that just settles in the air. It looks like we shot up a down pillow."

So somehow a puppet doctor took a fake liver made of stuffed fabric and transplanted it into a human body. Even more amazing, the operation was a success, and Edwards lived.

I know, I know, I'm putting way too much thought into all this again. But it's not my fault this time. The movie DEMANDS we think about this, as it brings up Edwards' puppet liver over and over and over. It's even a plot point!

• Take a look at this alternate poster for the movie. Once again, someone's created quite the skillful painting of Melissa McCarthy!

Jesus Christ, she may not be Miss America, but she's not THAT unattractive. If the studio thinks she's that much of a dog, then why the f*ck did they hire her in the first place? 

I wonder what McCarthy thinks about the fact that studios keep retouching her posters until she's literally unrecognizable? Or am I blaming the wrong people here, and this is HER idea?

Either way, while the Happytime ad's pretty bad, it's nowhere near as outrageous at the abomination that was the Heat poster!

• The main plot of the film revolves around the mystery of who's killing off the cast of The Happytime Gang. Unfortunately it's not too terribly hard to figure out the culprit. 

It's obviously not Phil or Edwards, as they're both onscreen or can account for their whereabouts during all the murders. It's definitely not any of the Happytime cast, as they're the ones being offed. It's not Bubbles, as she's in love with Phil and would never try to frame him. It's also unlikely to be either Lt. Banning or Agent Campbell. 

That pretty much leaves Sandra as the only possible suspect.

Note to aspiring writers— try to include more than one possible suspect in your murder mystery, to give the audience a chance to figure out whodunnit.

The Happytime Murders is vulgar, sleazy and unpleasant, and tries so hard to be shocking it forgets to be funny. There's not one genuine laugh in the entire ninety one minute runtime (which feels more like three hours), unless you're entertained by the sight of puppets cursing and ejaculating. I give it a very well deserved D+.

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