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'The Happytime Murders' review: Sad attempt at a detective spoof

Melissa McCarthy works with a puppet private eye

Melissa McCarthy works with a puppet private eye to solve "The Happytime Murders." Credit: STX Entertainment/Hopper Stone

PLOT Two detectives — one human, one puppet — investigate the deaths of the cast of an old TV show.

CAST Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks

RATED R (Graphic sexual humor)

LENGTH 1:31

BOTTOM LINE Lots of puppet sex and violence, but you’ll find better jokes in the opening two minutes of “The Muppet Show.”

“No Sesame. All Street,” goes the tagline for “The Happytime Murders,” a buddy comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a Los Angeles cop who must work with a puppet private eye to catch a killer. The makers of “Sesame Street” sued, fearing viewers might confuse the R-rated movie with the children’s television show that made Jim Henson’s Muppets famous.

After all, the whole point of “The Happytime Murders” — directed and coproduced by Henson’s son, Brian Henson — is to lampoon the family-friendly image of the Muppets (a trademarked name the movie never uses). In this mock noir, Det. Connie Edwards (McCarthy) and her former puppet partner, Phil Phillips (the voice of Bill Barretta), overcome their mutual animosity to figure out who’s killing the cast of an old TV show, “The Happytime Gang.” As they do, the movie never misses an opportunity to pile on puppet perversity — extreme violence, drug abuse, puppet prostitutes, puppet porn, even graphic puppet sex.

The “Sesame Street” folks lost the lawsuit, but nobody was ever going to confuse the two productions. For one thing, “Sesame Street” is funny. “The Happytime Murders,” written by Todd Berger, is almost completely laugh-free.

Part of the problem is that the entire idea has already been done, and brilliantly, by “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” “Team America,” and the Broadway hit “Avenue Q,” to name just a few examples. Nevertheless, “The Happytime Murders” thinks that the sheer novelty of puppets behaving badly will carry the day. Many of its jokes are obvious, like the idea that puppets snort sugar instead of cocaine. Some jokes try hard and still don’t work, like a stripper (Elizabeth Banks as Jenny) who arouses some puppet rabbits by peeling a carrot. (Huh?) The sight of a shotgun turning a puppet’s head into a cloud of fluff has a certain shock humor the first time, but not the second, third or 10th time.

At any rate, there’s nothing here to equal a classic “Sesame Street” skit like, say, Grover waiting tables or the Beetles singing “Letter B.” A little more wit, and a little less bodily fluid, would have gone a long way.

OTHER FILMS POPULATED WITH PUPPETS

Who says puppets are only for children? Long before “The Happytime Murders” came along, filmmakers have used puppetry to express some, uh, grown-up ideas. Here are four more puppet movies that are definitely not suitable for kids:

MEET THE FEEBLES (1989) This curio from Peter Jackson focuses on a troupe of depraved Muppet-style characters — such as Heidi the oversexed hippo and Wynyard the drug-addicted frog — whose misdeeds include interspecies adultery, shooting sprees and a re-enactment of the Russian roulette scene from “The Deer Hunter.”

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999) Spike Jonez’s still-unsettling comedy-drama features John Cusack as a puppeteer whose work is just a tad on the dark side: His masterpiece is a ballet of psychological disintegration called the “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment.”

TEAM AMERICA (2004) A parody of jingoistic action films using “Thunderbirds”-style marionettes, this R-rated comedy from Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“South Park”) featured shootings, graphic sex, projectile vomiting and the impalement of Kim Jong Il.

THE BEAVER (2011) Star-director Jodie Foster’s improbable drama featured Mel Gibson as a suicidal toy company executive who begins communicating solely through a beaver hand puppet. It was a domestic flop, earning $970,000 at the box office.

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