A Sesame Street That Fucks My World of Flops Case File #108/My Year of Flops II #5: The Happytime Murders
Pleasure and pain, garbage and entertainment are so irrevocably intertwined in my mind that it’s not inaccurate to say that I love what I hate and hate what I love. Take show-business satires, for example. I fucking love them. I will see literally any movie about movies, particularly satirical exposes of Hollywood excess. Hell, I even created a column called The Fractured Mirror for TCM Backlot about movies about movies so that I would have an excuse to keep on watching these show business romps.
At the same time, I fucking hate the vast majority of comedies about movie-making. They’re pathologically self-obsessed, traffic in the same exhausted tropes, archetypes and cliches endlessly and are irrevocably pitched to an industry that never gets tired of seeing its obsessions reflected onscreen rather than a public with a healthy, long-standing disinterest in movie-movies.
On a similar note, I adore the mismatched buddy comedy. I came of age as a pop culture lover in the great heyday of the mediocre mismatched buddy comedy, when it seemed like there was a romp featuring a spectacularly undistinguished buddy cop pairing every week. Anthony Andrews and Forest Whitaker in Downtown! Gene Hackman and Dan Ackroyd in Loose Cannons! James Woods and Michael J. Fox in The Hard Way, a glorious twofer that was simultaneously a behind the scenes show business comedy and a movie about mismatched buddy cops!
I’m so enamored of the mismatched buddy cop movies that I’ve given seriously consideration to devoting an entire month to mismatched buddy cops like previous theme months Corey Feldman Month, Monkey March and No Respect January. This would give me an excuse to re-visit all those terrible, terrible buddy cop movies I devoured as a wayward youth who would watch anything as long as it was projected on a movie screen.
Suffering through 2018’s sorrow-producing The Happytime Murders I was reminded that while I sure do love the mismatched buddy cop movie as a whole, as an idea and as a major, fondly remembered component of a movie-mad childhood I fucking hate most mismatched buddy cop movies. As a whole, they’re a sorry lot with a few apexes and a whole lot of dispiriting nadirs.
The Happytime Murders is seemingly nothing but fatal flaws. One of the most damaging is just how serious and earnest Brian Henson’s rightfully reviled puppet jizz comedy is about hitting all the requisite mismatched buddy cop comedy beats.
The mismatched buddy cop movie is so hopelessly exhausted creatively, so thoroughly tapped out, so devoid of energy and excitement that seemingly the only way to make a satisfying buddy cop movie these days is to go the deconstructionist root and make your latter-day mismatched buddy cop comedy a winningly meta meditation on the contrived and convoluted nature of the sub-genre and the public’s exhaustion with its well-worn conventions.
That’s the route Lord-Miller’s 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street took. In the process, they revitalized a hackneyed old form. The same is true of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s even more beloved Hot Fuzz.
The Happytime Murders, on the other hand, play everything straight. Our mismatched cops start off the movie hating each other but they bond while working on an unexpectedly personal and explosive case and ultimately are able to catch the bad guys and overcome their differences.
The twist is that instead of human characters The Happytime Murders pairs Detective Connie Edwards, a tough cop played by Mellisa McCarthy, with Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a disgraced ex-cop who was once the very first puppet on the force until he made a mistake in a high-pressure situation that destroyed his career as a cop and his relationship with Connie.
If that sounds an awful lot like the premise for Bright that’s because The Happytime Murders’ premise is eerily similar to the premise of Bright, which, in turn, essentially recycled the premise of Theodore Rex.
Alternately, it’s like Meet the Feebles minus the Meet, the and s part.
The Happytime Murders’ unfortunate resemblance to Bright extends to aspirations to social commentary regarding race that come suspiciously close to racism. Both films pat themselves on the back for commenting on the ugliness and pervasiveness of real-life racism by making their non-human characters subject to the same kind of discrimination and bigotry as real-life minorities. All these movies are really doing, however, is transferring racist cliches about minorities (laziness, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence and hyper-sexuality) to fantasy creatures like Orcs and puppets. These movies don’t use fantasy to comment on racism. They just say, “Hey, racism exists and is totally a thing but in our world it’s the non-humans who are discriminated against. Really makes you think, huh?”
The Happy Time Murders will not make you think, however. Or make you laugh. Or entertain you. It’s exclusively interested in juvenile shock. Even on that level it’s a strangely morose failure. Here’s a good test as to whether or not you will be the one magical unicorn who legitimately finds The Happy Time Murders funny: does the idea of porn magazine called Puppet Pussy Party make you laugh? I always find alliteration amazingly awesome, yet these bursts of felt-based vulgarity just made me sad.
Does a puppet saying “Fuck you” to a puppet-hating man who takes his cab make you chuckle? Does the notion of a puppet vixen explaining to a hardboiled felt gumshoe, “I’m a sexual Imma” and then specifying “If I’ma get next to it, I’ma fuck it” tickle your funny bone? Then congratulations, you have a terrible sense of humor, are way too impressed by facile shock and might enjoy The Happy Times Murders.
The film’s premise involves the cast members of The Happytime Gang, a popular 1990s puppetry-based television show that is about to go into syndication being killed one by one by an unknown assailant. Brian Henson’s involvement as director and the presence of puppets invites automatic comparisons to Sesame Street or The Muppets but The Happytime Gang more closely resembles Horsin’ Around, the poignantly banal hit sitcom that made Bojack Horseman famous.
The Happytime Murders suffers from its resemblance to Bojack Horseman and the cult puppet musical Avenue Q. Those masterpieces weren’t just outrageously, explosively funny in a way The Happytime Murders never even threatens to be. But they also had the benefit of being smart and sad and ultimately deeply philosophical as well. Exploring the massive gulf between the happy, sunny, bright world we were promised on Sesame Street and the messy, complicated, simultaneously under and overwhelming adult world we ended up with makes Avenue Q funny but also melancholy in a very satisfying way. Bojack Horseman similarly derives enormous pathos from the gulf between the comforting lies of television formula and the ragged, unsolvable complexity and messiness of real life. But The Happy Times Murders is content to endlessly recycle the cheap, lazy, awful irony of friendly-looking puppets from something called The Happytime Gang behaving in ways that would make G.G Allin blush.
The first time Phil Phillips punches someone and it lands with a crunch and a thud it’s surprising, but it’s not funny. At all. The movie’s sour transgressions quickly become dispiritingly predictable. It’s as if the filmmakers are making their way joylessly through a checklist of shock and perversion. When “cute” characters exist solely as vehicles for cheap transgression, juvenile naughtiness becomes not only expected but angrily demanded.
Happy Time Murders gets a tiny boost of artificial energy from some upbeat pop songs in the early going. Director Brian Henson’s universally reviled flop is so dire, so utterly devoid of merit that you end up feeling obscenely grateful for a pleasure as cheap and fleeting as hearing a familiar song on the soundtrack. Otherwise The Happytime Murders has the exhausted feel of a sequel to a movie nobody liked in the first place. It’s as if twenty years ago this cast made a Theodore Rex-like flop comedy about the first puppet on the police force and the shooting that destroyed his life and ended his career as a cop that was released to abysmal box-office and even worse reviews. But they were contractually obligated to make a sequel to it all the same, so this movie was joylessly shitted into existence by people who should know better.
As a fan of puppetry as an art form it broke my heart to see so many brilliant craftsmen waste their time and energy on a foul-mouthed felt version of Bright. The least interesting any puppet can do is swear, or plead for drugs, or offer or demand sex, yet that’s all these puppets ever do, with the exception of Phil, who is 90 percent generic cop character/tough-guy detective, 10 percent tediously conceived puppet.
As for the actors, they all do the best they can with roles that would need to be beefed up considerably just to qualify as thankless. I want to send Maya Rudolph and Joel McHale condolence cards reading, “Just wanted to say that I saw you in The Happytime Murders. I’m so sorry. My thoughts are with you and your family in this time of need.”
I like Mellissa McCarthy. I think she’s a terrific dramatic actor and a force of nature in the right comedic role. But The Happytime Murders finds McCarthy at her absolute worst, delivering a one-note performance perversely more invested in the movie’s buddy cop arc than in the puerile profanity, sex and violence that are the film’s ostensible selling point.
It’s hard to single out a conclusive nadir in a film positively swimming with them, but it’s difficult to beat a late-in-the-game Basic Instinct spoof/homage involving McHale staring at a puppet’s pubic hair as a definite low point.
It’s a testament to what a perverse non-entity the film is that it brought Kevin Clash—one of the most successful, controversial and brilliant puppeteers of our time—back into the spotlight after a series of unseemly allegations involving young men ended his auspicious fairy tale ascent to fame and glory career on Sesame Street to perform two members of the Happytime Gang to absolutely no effect. These scenes should be charged with a weird, intense, deeply sad iconic energy. The man who gave us Elmo is returning in a weird, shocking and brazen new context and no one could possibly care, even someone as obsessed with Elmo and Sesame Street as myself.
Sesame Workshop sued The Happy Times Murders over its audacious and borderline-clever, borderline offensive “No Sesame, All Street” tagline, arguing that it would confuse parents into thinking this hard-R movie about puppets boning, swearing and getting fucked up was an official Sesame Street production or hurt the television institution’s reputation.
They lost, perhaps because everyone could see that something as substantive and remarkable as Sesame Street could never be seriously affected by something as meager, vulgar and small as The Happytime Murders. Jim Henson was a goddamn giant, a genius, a titan. His son’s sad, small, ugly little movie is a stain alright, but the magical, wonderful world his dad created remains unblemished.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
Support independent media, get access to patron-only content and be a good person by pledging over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace