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'The Happytime Murders' struggles for laughs

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    Joel McHale in a scene from 'The Happytime Murders.'

    STX Entertainment

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    Elizabeth Banks in a scene from 'The Happytime Murders.'

    STX Entertainment

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    Maya Rudolph, left, and Melissa McCarthy, background center, in a scene from 'The Happytime Murders.'

    STX Entertainment

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    Melissa McCarthy in a scene from 'The Happytime Murders.'

    STX Entertainment

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The Happytime Murders is a single joke stretched into an underwritten and pedantic R-rated comedy: Muppets — or whatever one might call the generic, non-Disney-owned equivalent — behaving badly for 90 minutes. For example, puppets having graphic sex in a detective’s office, as humans in the adjoining room hear everything and see more than enough.

But once the comedic novelty of naughty puppets dissipates — and it does — The Happytime Murders struggles for laughs.

Directed by Brian Henson, Jim’s Henson’s son, The Happytime Murders is set in a present-day Los Angeles where the puppets are alive. While they don’t have bones, they have major organs, and they can die when, for example, a dog tears them into pieces of fluff, or if their head is blasted into pieces of fluff by a shotgun.

Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), a disgraced former cop-turned gumshoe, is the film’s hero and its narrator. He is a blue-skinned puppet, whose best, if not only, thing going for him is his human assistant, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, whose hard work for laughs overcomes the script’s mostly stale lines and setups).

As with most detectives in movies, Phil has history to overcome, a femme fatale, and trouble just about everywhere he goes, beginning when the beautiful nymphomaniac puppet Sandra (Dorien Davies) shows up in his office to hire him because she’s being blackmailed for her amorous proclivities.

But this isn’t Chinatown, or even a clever neo-noir puppet parody, as Phil’s investigation first takes him to an adult bookstore, where, after some rather hard-R situations and gags, he has a multiple murder case to solve. As the puppet body count grows, Phil realizes that the stars of the canceled children’s series, The Happytime Gang, are the killer’s targets. The potential victims include his brother, Larry (Victor Yerrid), and his human ex-girlfriend, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), who played a cop with a catchphrase and the hot blonde, respectively, on the show.

Unfortunately for Phil, the case also reunites him with his former police partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Connie is mouthy, sarcastic, and has a beef with Phil, so naturally his former and her current boss (Leslie David Baker, who played serious-minded accountant Stanley Hudson in The Office) wants them to work together to solve the case. The pair are mostly at each other’s throats (which affords Barretta and McCarthy some funny moments together), until the arrival of a not-so-bright FBI agent (Joel McHale), who is certain Phil is the killer, gives them a common enemy.

When Phil and Connie aren’t antagonizing each other or the FBI agent, they are traversing the seedier side of L.A., dimly lit allies and drug houses where puppets are strung out on sugar and will do just about anything for a fix. In addition to tone-deaf jokes about addiction during the nation’s opioid crisis, The Happytime Murders is prone to ham-handed commentary about race relations. The puppets, as the minority in the human world, suffer prejudiced slurs about their fuzziness, for example, or worse, physical violence including having their plastic eyes yanked from their heads or their extremities cut off and sold.

Even if well-intentioned, and not meta irony aimed at educational programs for children (hint, hint), The Happytime Murders’ social message is simplistic and silly.

Should we expect anything more from a film featuring carnal puppets? Yes, we should. In 2004’s underrated R-rated satire Team America: World Police, by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, an all-marionette cast dropped the F-bomb and their clothes, but the comedy’s funniest bits did not involve those of a naughty nature on a puppet.

In The Happytime Murders, however, puppets being all-too-human isn’t just the main source of comedy, it’s all the film really has to offer audiences, other than perhaps as an obscure fetish involving puppet sex.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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