Wonder how long it will take for ratings-schmatings scoffers to regret bringing kids along to “The Happytime Murders”? It might not be during opening shots of Chandler-esque, Muppet-esque PI Phil Philips (Pepe the Prawn puppeteer Bill Barretta) chainsmoking his way through his LA commute. Maybe the hard-R profanity spewed by Guy Not-So-Smiley types won’t do it, either. But it’s guaranteed that the first stop in Phil’s latest case, at a downtown puppet porn shop, will get those red flags waving furiously. Even adults can’t unsee what goes on in a scuzzy backroom at Vinny’s Puppet Pleasureland.
Credit director Brian Henson (“Muppet Treasure Island”), son of legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson, with having a decidedly free-and-easy openness to goofing on the iconography of his dad’s cuddly oeuvre. Some of this smutty irreverence is undeniably hilarious, goosed along by Melissa McCarthy’s game presence as Phil’s estranged LAPD partner and human foil. (In other felt-free casting, Maya Rudolph is equally entertaining as Phil’s trusty secretary, even if Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale go to waste.)
Agreeable as this cheekiness can be, the adult-oriented-puppets shtick has certainly been done, in everything from “Team America: World Police” and cable’s “Crank Yankers” to “Anomalisa” and Broadway’s “Avenue Q.” Once our initial LOL shock at the tone of “Happytime Murders” wears off, we begin hankering for something more – yet the movie is content mostly just to up the outrageousness, piling on material as liable to make us cringe as laugh.
The comedy isn’t quite so one-note to start. Gumshoe Phil’s investigation of the systematic killings of a puppet sitcom cast opens as social satire, cleverly set in a world in which he and his kind co-exist with humans, but strictly as second-class citizens. They’re unjustly hassled by the cops and assaulted by bigots; then there’s Phil’s brother, “Happytime Gang” celeb Larry (Victor Yerrid), who’s gotten a full-body bleach job to make his assimilation complete. And on the flip side, McCarthy has wacky fun with some puppet-like tendencies belying her detective character’s hard shell. Love the screwy plot point explaining why her prejudice is so ironic, and why she routinely slugs syrup from the bottle like whiskey from a flask.
Over the course of the movie, this sort of wit gets away from Henson and his crew, swapped for lurid gags involving Silly String and puppets’ baser instincts. We’ll take some colorfully scripted banter about the challenges of lip reading a puppet over jokes about a meth-Muppet’s oral habits any day.
★ ★ ½
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS
Directed by Brian Henson. Written by Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale. Boston theaters, suburbs. 91 mins. R (strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, some drug material).