DVD Review: The Happytime Murders and Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy had two crime movies released in 2018. They were radically different films with wildly different receptions. One “won” her a Razzie Award; and another earned her Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, as well as a plethora of other nods and wins. While one is clearly a much better movie than the other, both are worthy of study, even if one serves mainly as a cautionary tale teaching moviemakers mistakes to avoid.
The Happytime Murders has an intriguing premise. It’s set in a fictionalized version of Los Angeles, where living puppets uneasily coexist aside humans, though the puppets are treated as second-class citizens, and are victims of all sorts of bigotry. The central character, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), was the first (and only) puppet to work for the LAPD, but a shooting gone wrong led to his dismissal, so he now works as a private detective. Phil gets drawn into investigating a series of murders, where each of the members of a popular children’s show (all but one puppets) are getting murdered one by one.
Brian Henson, son of the legendary Jim, directed this film. Jim Henson always resented the fact that puppetry was widely seen as kid’s stuff, when he believed that puppetry could be used for all ages and subject matters. Some of Henson’s experimental work and Saturday Night Live sketches illustrate his desire to step beyond the bounds of children’s programming. Indeed, The Happytime Murders could have succeeded, but there are some serious problems holding it back from achieving its full potential.
The problem with The Happytime Murders is that it’s trying too hard to be gritty “adult” entertainment. From the tagline “No Sesame. All Street,” which provoked the ire of Sesame Workshop, everything about the production strives to be dark, violent, sexualized, and coarse. It’s a seedy story filled with seedy characters. And it’s trying so hard to earn its label “not for kids” that it loses the magic touch that makes for a quality movie. It reminds me of all of those former Disney starlets who, upon entering their late teens, decide to jettison their wholesome image in favor for sexual provocativeness, causing a bad taste in the mouths of parents and more often than not also in the kids who grew up watching their early G-rated work.. The film tries so hard to make it clear that it’s a R-rated comedy that it forgets what’s really important– the need to create characters that the audience cares about and wants to see happy.
Growing up, I always felt that the Muppets were a breed apart from the other puppet characters on children’s television shows. The Muppets seemed like a real felt-based species with hearts and more importantly, souls. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Rowlf, Big Bird, Oscar, Bert, Ernie… all of them were full-fledged characters with genuine personalities. You knew how they’d respond in a situation, and kids wanted them as their friends in real life. The puppets on other shows reminded me of those cheap stuffed animals you won at fairs, the ones that fell apart at the seams after a couple of squeezes and it turned out they were stuffed with Chinese newspapers, and the fuzzy cloth was full of dust and grit that no amount of washing could ever remove, even if soap and hot water wouldn’t make the toys dissolve anyway.
The puppet characters of The Happytime Murders remind me of those so-called prizes. They’re crude and tawdry, and the constant sexual references and profanity create the impression that there was more focus on shock value than there was on developing characterization. With precious little effort to make the victims three-dimensional, there’s no more emotional impact to the mounting death toll than there is when a dog rips an old chew toy to shreds. Seeing a pornography-addicted rabbit getting blown away by a high-powered rifle (leaving little behind but a few lumps of cotton), or an assimilationist puppet getting mauled by dogs may raise an eyebrow, but ultimately, they’re nothing more than unfunny attempts at a joke. If the crimes were to have meaning, the characters had to have a genuine, beating heart inside all their fluff. As it stands, only Phil Phillips is more than felt and cotton, although his character template isn’t even remotely original, although he is a fairly solid example of a typical antihero in the genre. The principle from The Velveteen Rabbit holds here. Stuffed animals become real when they are loved. If they aren’t lovable, they aren’t real. And that’s the problem. When a junkie puppet, caked in filth, overdoses and drowns, the visual image has no more resonance than discovering the worn-out teddy bear of some child you don’t know floating in a muddy puddle on the sidewalk. It’s litter, not a tragic death that demands justice.
McCarthy plays Detective Connie Edwards, Phil’s former partner, who now resents him for reasons revealed far too slowly over the course of the movie. McCarthy has a gift for taking eccentric, outrageous, and downright bizarre characters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pU8prtJUwHk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gPnaWhcEbo) and making her audience care about them. Unfortunately, Edwards is either angry or sullen for much of the movie, and the characterization lacks that special twist or spark that makes the audience root for her.
The only performer to really shine in The Happytime Murders is Maya Rudolph as Phil’s secretary Bubbles, who manages to be a ray of light in an overly dark world. It’s a reminder of how many writers get noir wrong. Too often, in order to create noir, the only recipe is “Darkness! More darkness!” The authors forget that noir only works if at least one pivotal character is either interesting or likeable (or both), and the best way to prove the darkness of one’s fictional world is to throw in a little light to provide some contrast.
Comparatively, Can You Ever Forgive Me? works because even though its central characters are con artists, the actors make us care about them. McCarthy is terrific as Lee Israel, a biographer writing about celebrities, whose career is in the doldrums. Unwilling to tailor her writing to focus on more marketable topics, and unable to control her prickly temper to hold down a regular job, she’s teetering on the brink of bankruptcy until she discovers the market for letters by famous people, and realizes that she can make decent money through forgery. Along the way, she partners with Jack Hock (a delightful Richard E. Grant), a sometimes drug dealer and always bon vivant who’s constantly trying to maintain his dashing self-image with varying levels of success. Along the way, the chances Lee Israel takes get increasingly risky and the odds of exposure grow more and more likely.
The mystery in The Happytime Murders is fairly easy to figure out, as the major twists and turns are pretty well telegraphed. Comparably, the general story arc of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is given away in the trailer– there’s no doubt that Lee Israel’s forgeries will eventually be detected, and the title indicates that she’ll have to beg for mercy after getting caught. Yet while Can You Ever Forgive Me? is never really suspenseful, it is always involving, because even though the discerning viewer can determine most of what will happen without knowing the real-life facts of the case, the pleasure of the film doesn’t come from wondering what comes next, but from watching McCarthy and Grant interact and seeing their misadventures unfold onscreen. The movie stresses just how important friendship is in life, and it’s the emotional connection and the McCarthy/Grant chemistry that make the movie shine.
Indeed, McCarthy’s depiction of Lee Israel is never meant to be warm and fuzzy. More often than not, she’s a human porcupine, lashing out at anybody who displeases her, showing more affection in two seconds to her seriously ill cat than she does to all the other characters in the film save Jack over the course of the entire movie. It’s a master class in showing that an actor doesn’t have to file down a character’s rough edges in order to evoke empathy from the audience. McCarthy’s performance is often angry but never cruel, and her financial situation, though sympathetic, is always depicted as being largely her own fault, due to being unwilling to adjust or be sufficiently pleasant to keep a job or find a marketable topic for a book. She had plenty of other options besides taking some old typewriters and passing off her own missives as real celebrity correspondence.
While The Happytime Murders tries too hard to raise eyebrows with puppet porn shops and the ravages of addiction (sugar is like heroin to puppets), it creates a world that isn’t just unpleasant, but also emotionally uninvolving. With a little inspiration and considerable thematic reframing, The Happytime Murders could have been so much more. Meanwhile, Can You Ever Forgive Me? could have been a bitter movie about shady people, but instead somehow manages to be a buddy tragicomedy and morality tale. Melissa McCarthy’s comedic successes lie in never forgetting that no matter how wacky or grotesque her characters are, they must never lose sight of the humanity that forges a connection with the audience.
The Happytime Murders
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
20th Century Fox