STX Entertainment

The Happytime Murders (2018, Brian Henson)

The Happytime Murders is exceptionally foul and exceptionally funny. It’s set in a world where animate puppets and humans co-exist, with the human bigotry eradicated because they’ve all decided to hate on the puppets instead. There’s no explanation of how the puppets came to be or when they came to be or whatnot; they just exist. In the past, before the humans started hating on them, the puppets were entertainers who loved to dance. Now they’re all hooked on sucrose, which gets them high. It’s such intense sucrose it’d kill a human to ingest it, which both is and isn’t important to the story.

The first act sort of sets up the world—the lead, a disgraced ex-cop puppet private investigator (performed by a fantastic Bill Barretta), narrates. He’s in the City of Angels, he works out of a crappy office, he’s got a loyal human girl Friday for a secretary (Maya Rudolph, who’s also really good), and he’s trying to make things right for the downtrodden puppets. The movie opens with him getting a case from a fetching nymphomaniac puppet (Dorien Davies); it initially seems like a somewhat crude riff on a film noir, down to Barretta’s office looking like Sam Spade’s.

However, once Barretta gets to the puppet porn store, it’s clear Happytime is going a very, very, very different route. In fact, Barretta’s going to end up forgetting about client Davies because he gets wrapped up in a spree killing case where someone is targeting the puppets who used to be on a popular primetime sitcom, “The Happytime Gang.” Barretta’s involvement starts wrong place, wrong time, but then his old boss (a likable but dreadfully miscast Leslie David Baker) forces Barretta to work the case—as a consultant—with his old partner, human Melissa McCarthy.

Barretta and McCarthy used to be the best of partners, then there was a shooting gone wrong and McCarthy had Barretta not just drummed off the force but also got a law passed puppets can’t be cops. It’s unclear if the no puppet cops thing is nationwide or just L.A. The movie gives up on relevant exposition once McCarthy shows up, which is kind of fine. Todd Berger’s script has constantly hilarious moments but it’s not a good script, it just knows expertly executed puppets (by the post-Muppet Henson company no less) being inordinately obscene is going to be funny. Any deeper and Berger wouldn’t be able to handle it.

So it’s up to Barretta and McCarthy to get over their past history and solve the case. Or just survive the case, as they don’t just have to the bad guy to ferret out, they’ve also got to contend with jackass human FBI agent Joel McHale sticking his nose in. Oh, and Barretta’s ex-girlfriend, human Elizabeth Banks; he didn’t leave things quite right with her.

Mostly the movie is McCarthy mugging through scenes with puppets, aptly delivering filthy dialogue, with some nods at legitimate character development for Barretta as he reclaims his previous potential. While also delivering filthy dialogue.

It’s hilarious. McCarthy’s really good with the puppets. So good it doesn’t even matter she’s a barely shaded caricature who gets less personality in the script than Rudolph. More than Banks though, who initially seems like stunt casting, then not, then stunt casting again. Meanwhile McHale is… in a miscasting boat similar to Baker’s, but with less likability.

As far as Henson’s direction goes… well, the puppet work is outstanding. He does a great job directing the puppets. Otherwise, it’s a fairly bland effort on his part. Every shot seems constructed to be as simple as possible, which might be requisite given the puppets—the end credits show just how much work went into the production—but it’s nowhere near as enthusiastic as the movie needs. Maybe if Henson hadn’t shot it wide Panavision aspect ratio without any idea how to fill the frame; though Mitchell Amundsen’s similarly bland photography doesn’t help things. The puppetry is no doubt inventive, imaginative; the direction is neither.

The Happytime Murders isn’t a very good movie, but it’s still a somewhat awesome one. Barretta, McCarthy, and—to a smaller, but significant degree—Rudolph, make it happen.

It’s so exceptionally foul-minded, it has to be seen to be believed.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Henson; screenplay by Todd Berger, based on a story by Berger and Dee Austin Robertson; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Brian Scott Olds; music by Christopher Lennertz; production designer, Chris L. Spellman; costume designer, Arjun Bhasin; produced by Ben Falcone, Jeffrey Hayes, Henson, and Melissa McCarthy; released by STX Entertainment.

Starring Bill Barretta (Phil Philips), Melissa McCarthy (Detective Connie Edwards), Maya Rudolph (Bubbles), Leslie David Baker (Lt. Banning), Dorien Davies (Sandra), Joel McHale (Agent Campbell), Victor Yerrid (Larry), Kevin Clash (Lyle), Drew Massey (Goofer), and Elizabeth Banks (Jenny).


The Best of Enemies (2019, Robin Bissell)

Chris Rock has a joke about waiting to see if the evening news—it’s an old joke—report on a crime is going to have a Black perpetrator or a White one, just so he (Rock, a Black man) can figure out if his white coworkers are going to ask him if he knew the perp (if he’s Black).

In other words, I had to check and see if Best of Enemies writer, director, and producer Robin Bissell was a White person. He is. He’s also fifty, which… isn’t a demographic to be making The Best of Enemies in 2019. Or ever, really. There was never a good time for a fifty year-old White guy to make a movie about a North Carolina Klan leader in the early seventies realizing Black people are people because they can be nice to him. Best of Enemies is basically the reverse of those White “liberals” who tell Black people to stop complaining or they’ll have to vote GOP next time when, in reality, you know they all voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein anyway. It’s about lead Sam Rockwell—the aforementioned Klan leader—realizing not just Black people are people but also how the system is rigged against poor Whites and Blacks alike and that rigging seems to be the point.

Less on the second part, however, because it might be interesting to see that development in Rockwell’s life and the film avoids any interesting developments.

I’m going at Enemies a little harder than usual for a few reasons. First, Taraji P. Henson is top-billed. She’s the Black woman community organizer who works with Rockwell and contributes to his ability to see the humanity in… you know, humans. Rah for him, sure, but a movie? Not sure it’s worth a movie. Especially since the movie sets itself up to be this great anti-buddy buddy pic between Henson and Rockwell and it’s not. Henson, it’ll turn out somewhere in the very lengthy two hour plus runtime, is red herring. She’s got nothing to do in the movie. Not even supporting player scraps after the movie shoves Rockwell into the lead. So The Best of Enemies, which ostensibly is about two “born enemies”—a Klan leader and, you know, a Black person—becoming something together, is really just a White Savior movie for Rockwell. And he’s not even the most interesting White Savior in the picture.

John Gallagher Jr.’s the most interesting White Savior. He’s just in a bit part, which is too bad because he’s a lot more useful a character than some of the bigger stunt casts in bit parts—fifth-billed Wes Bentley, for example; around to be the creepy, greasy Klan guy who you think is going to crack and kill someone.

And then there’s Nick Searcy, who’s—as usual—quite good. This time he’s quite good as a piece of shit upper class racist who gets Rockwell’s poor White Klan boys to do his dirty work. Is the film aware of… Nick Searcy’s optics? Like. You can leave a lot at the door. You can’t leave Nick Searcy at the door. It’s not a good enough part for it really to be worth it. Though no one’s part is really good enough.

Henson’s great. Even after Bissell’s scared to give her scenes with other Black people. Or maybe he’s not scared. Maybe he just doesn’t have the interest in her story. She and Rockwell are working on a charrette, which doesn’t make the Apple dictionary (says something, I imagine), and is “any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.” The problem in Enemies is school integration. Rockwell and Henson end up co-chairs, forced into working together by facilitator Babou Ceesay. Cessay’s in town doing the charrette because the judge doesn’t want to have to rule on school integration and wants to pass the buck.

It’s not a metaphor for the film’s proclivity for passing the buck, but only because Bissell wouldn’t know how to do a metaphor.

Technically, the film’s fine. It’s clearly on too low of a budget to do the period well. Almost no extras in the exteriors of strangely empty streets and so on. Bissell’s not bad at composition. He’s perfectly pedestrian, which does the film no help in getting over the budget constraints. Presumably most of the money went to Rockwell and Henson, who both do their best, but… there’s only so far they can go with the script and what the script gives them. Or, in both their cases, what the script doesn’t give them. Henson just doesn’t get material. Rockwell gets material but no character development arc. The whole point of the movie is shitbag racists are people too but Bissell never wants more than a caricature from Rockwell. Maybe a 3D one, but still just a caricature. You can see Rockwell getting bored in Enemies. The part doesn’t give him anything to do. Not really. Not sincerely. Some of his best scenes in the movie ought to be the ones where he’s just hanging out with wife Anne Heche, only there’s so much expository dumping in those scenes—because Heche isn’t a big-time racist, she just loves one. So she makes him different than the Bentleys or the Searcys of the film. Her and Rockwell having a son with Downs in the South in 1971 and still, you know, loving him. Best of Enemies exploits its cast in a lot of ways—after a while, if she’s not just building up Rockwell’s humanity, Henson’s part is reduced to crying helplessly—after a certain point, Bissell can’t even pretend he’s not just objectifying anguish… but no one gets it worse than Kevin Iannucci as the son. Bissell’s a callous filmmaker.

Probably because he can’t figure out how to make the movie work. Possibly because it’s not Rockwell’s movie but Bissell can’t imagine it any other way.

It’s a waste of the cast. Maybe not Bentley but everyone else. Bentley’s fine he’s just not promising. Everyone else is at least promising. Like Bruce McGill. Or Nicholas Logan, who’s creepy as the bland blond Klan redneck (versus Bentley’s greaser one, who needs a Johnny Reb cap to be distinct).

Really good songs on the soundtrack. Seventies stuff. Because they were listening to early Bowie in South Carolina in 1971. It’s Bissell bumbling his way through softening the audience with nostalgia.

Is there a good movie in the true story? Probably. The clips over the end credits of the real people Rockwell and Henson are playing is a better movie than the previous two hours and five minutes and they’re just clips.

There’s some good acting work in the film and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design is good and whoever did the line producing did well, but… The Best of Enemies is way too shallow. Bissell knows there’s a movie in the story, he just can’t find it. Especially not in his script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robin Bissell; screenplay by Bissell, based on the book by Osha Gray Davidson; director of photography, David Lanzenberg; edited by Harry Yoon; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Matt Berenson, Fred Bernstein, Bissell, Tobey Maguire, Matthew Plouffe, Danny Strong, and Dominique Telson; released by STX Films.

Starring Sam Rockwell (C.P. Ellis), Taraji P. Henson (Ann Atwater), Anne Heche (Mary Ellis), Nick Searcy (Garland Keith), Babou Ceesay (Bill Riddick), Wes Bentley (Floyd Kelly), Nicholas Logan (Wiley Yates), John Gallagher Jr. (Lee Tromblay), Caitlin Mehner (Maddy Mays), Kevin Iannucci (Larry Ellis), and Bruce McGill (Carvie Oldham).


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