I liked a lot of dumb comedies when I was a kid. In fact, it was probably my favorite genre. Even in my simple kid-brain I don’t think I would’ve said they were great movies, but they were the movies I liked. Sometimes you just want to not think too much and occasionally hear the word “titties.” I didn’t want to believe I’d outgrown these simple pleasures, but for a while I did wonder; it’s been a long time since I enjoyed something in that way. The Happytime Murders takes me back to those simpler days, of nacho cheese and dumb giggles. It helps me believe that it really was the movies that changed and not me.
The Happytime Murders is, of course, an R-rated muppet movie directed by Brian Henson and written by Todd Berger, a Ray Chandler-esque tale of a hard-drinking puppet private detective set in a world where puppets are second class citizens. Its fictionalized LA is a place where, as our hard-boiled protagonist, Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta doing a Deniro impression) tells us, “the greatest crime is to be warm and fuzzy.”
There are other race parable elements, like puppets bleaching their skin or trying to change their “puppet nose,” but The Happytime Murders isn’t Bright; it isn’t a satire, and very few of the jokes could be described as “incisive.” To me, this is a blessing. We’ve had so many years of comedy as protest and venerating the comedian as the ultimate truth teller and late night hosts DESTROYING some low-hanging sacred cow in YouTube videos that I’ve come to yearn for the whoopie cushion. When Donald Trump got elected there was some talk about it potentially producing some amazing protest art. A year and a half in, that promise has largely failed to materialize (Sorry To Bother You being a notable exception), but if it manages to bring about a renaissance in dopey fart comedy it won’t have been a total loss. The Happytime Murders gives me that hope.
Phil Phillips, the city’s first puppet cop, now disgraced and working as a private dick, is investigating a series of murders that all seem to be connected to “The Happytime Gang,” a puppet/human variety show his brother starred on. Other players include his flirtatious and supportive secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), his estranged ex-partner, Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and a scarlet-haired puppet femme fatale with “I’ma” disease (“If I’ma get next to it, I’ma f*ck it.”). The story is built around a framework of hard-boiled detective parable, but it’s mostly a platform for jizz jokes and F-words. It consistently hints at articulate wordplay, but usually as a misdirect where the punchline is “asshole says what?” And what’s more true to life than everything being a little stupider than you expected?
Likewise, the puppets offer sight gag opportunities that far outweigh their metaphorical value, and Happytime is happy to use them that way. Puppets are a little reminiscent of the dog robot or great sim work, where the unnatural movements themselves are the whole joke. Some people might call that “dumb” or “low,” but to me that’s the kind of humor all humor should aspire to — jokes that can’t be reduced down to “you surprised me” or “I recognize that” or “funny because it’s true.” That’s where true poetry lives, in laughs that defy all explanation and transcend all cultural conditioning. What I’m saying is I liked it when the puppet jizzed.
Happytime Murders isn’t the funniest or the smartest movie I’ve ever seen, but I forgive it because it isn’t trying that hard. At least, joke-wise. There’s something beautiful about the level of craft that goes into just one puppet, that in many cases ends up appearing in a single, one-off joke about pubic lice. Maybe it’s a comment on the ultimately ephemeral nature of all laughs, to build something so beautiful just to wipe your ass with it. Whatever the case, I enjoy it.