There’s a funny idea at the heart of “The Happytime Murders,” a satire of hard-boiled L.A. noir in which most of the hard-luck, low-life characters happen to be puppets. But a movie is supposed to have many ideas, and the one-joke nature of this adults-only spoof wears out the film’s welcome, even if director Brian Henson and his talented crew never let us see the strings.
It’s a concept not unlike the recent Netflix dud “Bright,” which presented a Los Angeles inhabited by orcs (including the city’s first orc cop) and fairies as a way to make ham-fisted statements about race. Here we get private eye Phil Phillips (voiced by Muppet vet Bill Barretta), who had been the LAPD’s first puppet officer, only to get kicked off the force for not shooting a fellow puppet who was holding his partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) hostage.
Now’s he’s the kind of gumshoe who keeps a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer and charges $300 a day plus expenses, and when the glamorous Sandra White (voiced by Dorien Davies) hires him to find out who’s blackmailing her, Phil stumbles upon a conspiracy to murder the former cast members of an old puppet sitcom called “The Happytime Gang,” including his own brother and his ex-girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the show’s one human.
The murder case forces Phil and Connie to work together again, which neither is happy about; her testimony not only got him kicked off the force, it also created the “Phillips Rule” that barred all puppets from being hired again. Their investigation takes them through a very seedy version of L.A., one in which puppets are likely to do drugs or engage in outrageous sexual acts. (Phil’s liaison with Sandra, which results in the screen’s most extended, explicit ejaculation scene ever, would have been funnier had it not been given away in the film’s inescapable red-band trailer.)
It’s a world where puppets are treated as second-class citizens, but these fictional-beings-as-people-of-color metaphors only go so far, particularly when they take place in a world that has actual people of color in it. (Leslie David Baker of “The Office” plays Connie’s boss.) And the notion that the LAPD would presumably praise one-time cop Phil for his ability to shoot a member of his own race is a can of worms that “The Happytime Murders” isn’t nearly ready to open.
And if these sound like irrelevant side issues, it’s because the movie fails its one big test: It’s just not all that funny. Screenwriter Todd Berger periodically provides moments that push the envelope so hard that they at least earn a gasp — a porn shoot involving a lactating cow and an octopus, for instance — but once it’s clear that these are hard-R puppets with hard-R habits, it runs out of places to go.
It’s telling that one of the film’s most hilarious sequences involves Phil’s secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), joining Connie to break into a suspect’s apartment; these two brilliant comic performers get a moment to breathe and bounce off each other and find laughs that have nothing to do with naughty puppets, and it’s an all too rare moment in which “The Happytime Murders” sloughs off its gimmick and mines comedy from another source.
To McCarthy’s credit, she commits to the material, and she and Barretta enjoy a prickly rapport. (The Phil puppet has a certain Robert De Niro je ne sais quoi.) She and Rudolph are the only non-puppet performers who pop, though; Banks and Baker mostly just keep the plot moving along, and Joel McHale gets precious little to do as an uptight FBI agent who becomes Connie’s foil.)
The film’s closing credits peel back the curtain to show how many green-clad puppeteers were digitally erased in the making of the movie, and the integration of puppets and humans is certainly seamless. Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen (“A Bad Moms Christmas”) effectively applies a layer of murky grime onto downtown L.A., turning it into the kind of cesspool of sin that Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy would recognize. (He’s less successful in hiding the fact that many of Phil and Connie’s interior-car scenes are shot against a green screen.)
There are those who will reject this film at first glance, insisting that puppets (particularly those from the Jim Henson Creature Shop) have no place in a movie trafficking in sex, drugs and repeated F-bombs. There’s nothing inherently unacceptable about the idea — it certainly worked for Peter Jackson’s 1989 “Meet the Feebles” — but for a movie that claims to be “All Street. No Sesame,” “The Happytime Murders” only runs the gamut from A-B-C to D-E-F.