The Happytime Murders Review: master of puppets but not much else

Nicholas Solomon

Does the latest Melissa McCarthy comedy movie spark the same laughter as her others? Sort of.

Essentially a buddy cop movie with puppets, “The Happytime Murders” focuses on the murders of puppets from an old children’s TV sitcom. Private detective/former cop Phil Phillips, a puppet voiced expertly by Bill Barretta, and Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) are determined to catch the person they believe is responsible. The film is pretty conventional, aside from the puppets. Even if they really don’t like each other, Edwards and Phillips race through the movie as they try to catch the murderer, bending plenty of rules along the way. The film features a small, but noteworthy, ensemble cast such as Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph (who portrays Phillips’ receptionist, Bubbles), Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale and Jimmy O. Yang (who, upsettingly, was relegated to a bit part with no lines, as he was excellent in Silicon Valley).

The plot of the movie is pretty run of the mill, except the addition of puppets. The puppets might be the best thing about the movie. I’m by no means an expert on puppeteering and the like, but it was super impressive to see all of the different puppets and how lifelike their gaits were- especially Phillips, because he had little details, like a permanent slouch, that really matched the voice and the overall character. There were really creative and funny puppets who, in contrast to their usual characters, walk, say or do incredibly vulgar things.

The biggest thing keeping “The Happytime Murders” from being good is the lack of a good rapport between the central duo. The most important thing for buddy cop films to be enjoyable is that central duo to carry the story along, and since McCarthy and Barretta really don’t have the chemistry, the film really misses something practically required. It misses that connection seen in films like “The Nice Guys” (2016) and “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), each with two lead buddy characters that can sell you on anything. The lack of this vital chemistry really hurts the rest of the movie.

The weak part of the duo is without a doubt McCarthy. I really didn’t enjoy McCarthy much in this film, she is sort of like Dwayne Johnson, where even in different movies they give the same performance. I suppose it is the writing, too, but she really didn’t give me a single laugh. There were plenty of jokes, but they just weren’t funny. Her character is supposed to be a tough detective lady who doesn’t like Phillips, but it really doesn’t work. That leads me to point out Barretta is absolutely the star of this film. He is supposed to be the stereotypical Phillip Marlowe or Columbo-type private investigator, and he narrates a big chunk of the film. While not exactly pushing the boundaries of the plot, the noir section of the film was really enjoyable. Just the novelty to see a hard-boiled puppet detective drink hard liquor, spouting cynical lines and at times beat up people was fun.

Besides the duo, the issue with the comedy is just that the movie really wasn’t consistently funny. There were moments I definitely found funny, but other than those few times, the film isn’t that humorous. However, I heard several other audience members die laughing during the movie, so I guess the film just doesn’t appeal too much to my sense of humor. I am guessing that, while it is definitely rated R, this is something middle school boys (or people who enjoy toilet humor) and the like would find funny, so I guess I wasn’t the target audience this movie was made for.

One thing I admired was the action. I might be biased, as I am an unabashed action movie fan, but this movie had a couple action scenes that are really worth talking about. Humans beating up puppets, puppets beating up humans and several times where puppets did other violent things or violent things happened to the puppets that were actually really fun slapstick comedy. Except with puppets being torn to shreds, and several puppet heads exploding. It is pretty sad that a movie that isn’t primarily action has much better action than many dedicated action movies that have come out recently (The Equalizer 2 and Mile 22 mainly). I’m just waiting for a puppet John Wick, or a DOOM film adaptation with puppets. Puppet action works!

Overall, this film wasn’t very funny, even if it had a good runtime and didn’t drag things along. It definitely had its moments though, especially with how impressive the puppets are and how the crew truly took advantage of using puppets to do violent and vulgar things (most working very well). I was pleasantly surprised at the fun action, and the sight of actors keeping straight faces while talking to a puppet was enjoyable. However, this film really lacks some important things that it needed to work well. That lack of a good buddy cop dynamic that other actor duos can do so well didn’t work here, and the film as a whole was not consistently funny.