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No sesame, all street

Joel McHale, Dorien Davies and Leslie David Baker in The Happytime Murders.

Joel McHale, Dorien Davies and Leslie David Baker in The Happytime Murders.

The Happytime Murders
2 stars
Director: Brian Henson
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph
Duration: 91 mins
Class: 15
KRS Releasing Ltd

The premise behind The Happytime Murders is genius. It is set in a world where humans and puppets live together, and presents a murder mystery with a mismatched duo solving a series of brutal crimes, while hinting at a message of diversity and acceptance. But, it is aimed at an adult audience, its profanity is way too much for kids – and even some of my contemporaries, weaned on myriad squeaky clean Sesame Street and Muppet adventures, may be a bit shocked at the rudeness of it all!

A bigger shock, however, is that the Muppet stalwarts behind it could not develop this into something sharper than the eye-rollingly, predictable sex-obsessed humour that follows what is a very accomplished setup.

Veteran puppeteer Bill Barretta is puppet Private Investigator Phil Phillips, a former police officer who left the force in disgrace. He reunites with his former partner, LAPD Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy – in human form) to investigate the brutal members of the cast of a 1990s popular children’s TV show The Happytime Gang, many of whom are down on their luck, looking back on their glory days as TV superstars.

The investigation leads Phillips and Edward to the seediest corners of LA, and brings the former into contact with ex-girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks).

The film’s tagline is ‘No Sesame, All Street’ and it skilfully shows off its street cred from the outset, with Barretta’s deep voiceover establishing the scene and the mood.

So far, so film noir, down to P.I. Phillips’ seedy office building, his filthy chain-smoking and drinking habits, his ruffed demeanour and trench coat… and his wonderfully named blonde bombshell of a secretary Bubbles, (a sparkling Maya Rudolph who effortlessly steals every scene she is in). It is down to the puppeteer’s superb handwork and spot-on voice characterisation that he shares such fizzling chemistry with McCarthy.

Predictable sex-obsessed humour

Edwards and Phillips make for a superb mismatched duo as they trade pointed barbs and colourful insults, while resentfully working together to solve the grisly crimes. And yes, the filmmakers show no mercy in their depiction of disintegrated puppets, felt body parts and shredded stuffing strewn in rather ungainly fashion in the crime scenes.

It is to their credit that you don’t bat an eyelid at the puppet/human interaction – but that is pretty much the only highpoint of the film.

Had the plot focused less on piling on the puerility and more on the characters’ partnership and history on the one hand, and on the victims of the crimes on the other, it would have effortlessly earned two more stars.

As it is, the screenplay by Todd Berger takes the easy route, opting to fall back on tried and tested – tired, more like – smutty humour for the better part of its running time. Its idea of being subversive gets no more highbrow than the puppets and their human counterparts, generally being crass, smoking, drinking, snorting sugar (the puppet version of heroin), skulking in porn shops, and visiting lap dancing clubs to make up for lack of narrative.

The clever opening also hints at the puppets being ostracised by some sectors of society, but the film is not clever enough to develop this into anything truly meaningful.

McCarthy once more inexplicably stars in and produces a movie that offers her very little space to flex her comedic muscles. It is almost embarrassing that her character is the butt of a running gag that has her mistaken for a man.

This happens not once, not twice but three or four times. It’s never funny because, you know, she doesn’t look like one.

In the meantime, in what the filmmakers clearly thought was the funniest scene depicts Phillips having it off with a client in his office. It goes on and on and mercilessly on, climaxing – pun intended – in an overuse of silly string. Yes, you read that right.

That the film comes from the Henson stable, creators of the indescribably successful Muppet/Sesame Street franchise may come as a surprise. It is produced by Henson Alternative, a subsidiary of the Jim Henson Company that is devoted to exclusively adult content.

It is a brave venture, yet given it was directed by Henson’s son Brian, I can’t be blamed for expecting something way funnier and more substantial considering the legacy it was built upon.

Also showing

Slenderman: In a small town in Massachusetts, a group of friends, fascinated by the internet lore of the Slender Man, attempt to prove that he doesn’t actually exist – until one of them mysteriously goes missing.

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