There’s a curious thing that happens when a comedy that should work doesn’t. The premise can be clever and edgy, the jokes may all arrive on time, the punchlines placed where they ought to be. But something’s missing. The involuntary laughs never come. The Happytime Murders is a perfect example. As high-concept pitches go, this one’s a honey: A hard-boiled detective noir set in a skeezy underworld where humans and puppets uneasily coexist, it’s like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but with puppets instead of ’toons. The hook is that these aren’t the cuddly, G-rated denizens of Sesame Street; they’re foulmouthed, drug-addled, sexually depraved lowlifes. And the cognitive dissonance of kiddie characters dropped into extremely adult situations should set off taboo sparks like they did in Team America: World Police. So why’s it so flat and unfunny?
Written by Todd Berger and directed by Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, The Happytime Murders strains to be as transgressive as Peter Jackson’s 1989 felt-behaving-badly shockfest, Meet the Feebles. But it’s mostly a drag that will no doubt be better enjoyed in states where recreational marijuana is legal (being baked should bump it up a full grade). Otherwise, it’s a botched experiment that inexplicably wastes a profanity-spewing Melissa McCarthy and is hobbled by a lead character (chain-smoking puppet PI Phil Phillips) who resembles Guy Smiley crossed with Jerry Orbach and whose deadpan monotone (provided by Bill Barretta) is likely to put you to sleep. There are a few spiky moments of sick, WTF fun (a bout of rough sex that ends with a Silly String climax; the first time a puppet drops an F-bomb), but mostly it feels like a promising idea poorly executed. C+