Movie Review: “The Happytime Murders”

Film noir, the literary and cinematic genre of crime, sex and shadows that flourished in the aftermath of the Great Depression, has already been so watered down by a half-century of parody that you needn’t have seen “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep” to pick up its squalid symbols.

So as soon as we hear the hard-boiled voice-over narration from Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), the protagonist of “The Happytime Murders,” we know we’re planted in cut-rate Philip Marlowe territory. Phil is a disgraced ex-cop turned private investigator whose Los Angeles office—a self-described “shithole on the edge of Chinatown”—is stocked with whiskey and sour memories. His first and only client for the day is, you guessed it, a lusty, garishly lipsticked blonde (Dorien Davies) seeking his services for a mysterious blackmail note.

You’ve seen this movie before, except that Phil and his femme fatale are about three feet tall and constructed from felt. They’re puppets in a world of homo sapiens—discarded exiles from a quainter time of children’s television. Their services no longer needed to entertain us, Phil and his kind are the new oppressed minority. Haughty humans casually shove them aside when hailing taxis, dogs lunge at them like chew toys, bullies poke out their eyes for kicks. When they ask too much from society, like equal pay for equal work, they’re dismissed as “uppity.”

Alas, if it sounds like “The Happytime Murders” has anything remotely to say about contemporary race relations, you’re reading too much into it. Compared to a truly confrontational comedy like “Sorry to Bother You,” these surface overtures are mere self-congratulation from a creative team infatuated with its own cleverness. Once established, this subtext is jettisoned, lest too much uncomfortable truth deter from the plot’s insipid juvenilia.

From its initial, colorless stabs at film noir appropriation, “The Happytime Murders” devolves into a buddy-cop retread, pairing Phil, quasi-reinstated on the police force, with Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), his former partner. The brutal murder of four puppets at the local puppet porno shop, which may or may not be connected to Phil’s sexpot client, is the first serial slaying of puppets linked to the ‘90s family sitcom “The Happytime Gang.” It’s up to the movie’s investigative odd couple to solve the case before all the cast members end up de-feathered.

“The Happytime Murders” expresses little ambition beyond hip mockery of better product, from the tiresome allusion to a certain leg-crossing in “Basic Instinct” (has the scene not been parodied enough?) to Detective Edwards’ increasing addiction to raw sugar, the puppets’ drug of choice, and its genre echoes of “The French Connection II.”

All of these self-aware clichés could still work if they were surrounded by genuinely funny material, but the film’s comic instincts lie at the bottom of the urinal in a middle-school boy’s bathroom. Luminous talents from Maya Rudolph to Joel McHale to Elizabeth Banks are mercilessly wasted, witless F-words fly like they’re going out of fashion, the film delights in the kicking of testicles, and we’re treated to not one but two extended scenes of puppet ejaculation, all under the misguided comic auspices of “more is more.”

I’m not a prude, by any means. It’s just that “South Park,” and more to the point its creators’ own puppet spectacle, “Team America: World Police,” have already covered this gross-out ground in ways that are both uproarious and effectively uncomfortable.

I’ve omitted the director’s name for nearly the entire length of this review, because it pains me to say it. “The Happytime Murders” is the $40 million folly of Brian Henson. Yes, he’s the son of Jim, the most influential puppeteer in the history of entertainment. The film has gone to great pains to separate itself from the director’s father’s work, even winning a lawsuit from Sesame Workshop so that it could promote its tagline, “No Sesame … All Street.”

It would be wise to continue extricating itself from Henson’s masterly father. This drivel is a stain on his family’s legacy.

“The Happytime Murders” opens Friday, Aug. 24 at most area theaters.