There's a moment, I don't know, maybe three or four or only one or two minutes into The Happytime Murders, when a puppet says "fuck you" to a human. The audience I was seeing it with dutifully laughed because, obviously, it's deeply, deeply funny when puppets use bad words. Because puppets are for children, you see, and the frisson of hearing something designed to entertain children drop the f-bomb is inherently funny.
Other things that are inherently funny: excessive ejaculation by puppets; sugar-addicted puppets offering blowjobs to human, female police officers for money so they can buy more sugar; fist fights with puppets; puppets having sex; puppets filming other puppets having sex; et cetera. All prompted submissive giggles, a tacit acknowledgment by the crowd that we were in fact watching a comedic cinematic program on this fine Wednesday evening.
It's not clear to me that any of the gags in The Happytime Murders—about a puppet P.I. named Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) who has to team up with his ex-partner on the force, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to track down the perp who is killing the former stars of a puppet-led sitcom—were actually funny so much as merely transgressive. This isn't to say the movie is never funny, just that when it works it mostly does so on the strength of McCarthy willing to get goofy while a guy with his hand up a felt creation's ass makes the mouth flap open and shut.
The Happytime Murders is framed as a noir. There's a mysterious series of murders; a femme fatale hoping Phil can find out who is blackmailing her; a disgraced cop who is looked down upon as a washout and potential killer himself. But it feels nothing like a noir, and not just because of the talking dolls. The soundtrack is jammed with poppy, peppy tunes rather than jazzy horns signifying mystery and danger. The lighting is all wrong—even the scenes set in dark alleys feel too bright. Phil smokes, but the rooms are rarely smoky. For a film so dirty, everything is a bit too sterile to make it believably gritty.
Writer Todd Berger and director Brian Henson make a stab at social relevance by hammering home the idea that discrimination (against puppets) is immoral. It's all quite conscientious but rarely entertaining in the way that, say, Team America‘s commentary on the United States's role in world affairs was. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? covered this territory years ago and did so with more skill (not to mention a more appropriate score).
It's not all bad. Barretta's voice work is amusingly inflected with a hard-edged faux-tough-guy cadence and timbre. Maya Rudolph plays Phil's assistant with a sincere ditziness that serves as a reminder she is woefully underused in film comedies. And McCarthy throws herself into a thankless role in a not-particularly good movie—you have to admire her energy and her willingness to give everything to a character that doesn't quite work.
At least the movie is short: At barely 80 minutes long, pre-credits, The Happytime Murders doesn't linger any longer than it has to.