I was really excited when I first heard about The Happytime Murders. Not only because film noir is my game, or because it was written by Todd Berger (who wrote and directed the hilariously sublime It’s a Disaster), but because it’s a Muppet noir that was directed by first-timer Brian Henson (the late Jim Henson’s son).

I love imagining how these things get made. Two years ago, a young agent with one of those painted-on beards parked his Maserati in front of the STX offices in Burbank, rolled up the sleeves of his pastel blazer and waltzed in blabbing about Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph being attached to a Muppet spec script that was written by someone who seriously knows comedy. Sounds like gold, right?

The people at STX probably spit out their nitro espresso martinis (it’s a thing, Google it) when they realized it’s an R-rated raunchy-ass noir with no natural audience. Not only do I not wanna see a Muppet movie in my 30s, but I don’t wanna take my 9-year-old to anything rated R (not that he’d mind, but I’m too vain to enjoy a movie with him when I’m getting glared at from disapproving strangers).

The film starts off by adhering to the most film noir of tropes: the pitifully broken but ultimately capable private detective, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), a Muppet who fell from grace after a scandal that fractured the already tenuous bond between him and his former human partner, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).

There’s a lengthy voiceover that lets us know a bit about the world we’re in. Muppets and humans coexist in a mostly peaceful way, but Muppets are made inferior and “othered,” which strongly evokes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and, well, all of 20th Century America. In “othering” Muppets this way, the film positions itself with the opportunity for a meaningful discourse about power structures and race, but ultimately prioritizes dopey one-liners instead.

As the story unwinds, Sandra, a buxom Muppet in a low-cut dress, lands herself in Philips’ office, desperate and horny (did I already say this isn’t a kids movie?). She’s being blackmailed, and after a few dick jokes, Philips agrees to take the case. In a true existential contortion act, Philips stumbles on to a series of seemingly unrelated murders. Someone is picking off the cast of a popular Muppet sitcom that just went into syndication. We follow the thread through some sophomoric humor (there’s a running joke in which Muppets keep misgendering Melissa McCarthy’s character) and some genuinely funny, if totally over the top gags (there’s a Muppet sex scene that culminates in silly-string being shot everywhere) and in true film noir fashion, the walls seem to be closing in on the protagonist at the close of the second act, as the cops like Philips for the crimes. Now he has to work doubly hard to solve them and clear his already sullied name.

But here’s the thing: In trying to split its attention between being a Muppet flick, a film noir, a detective story and a lewd comedy, The Happytime Murders manages to do some of those things sometimes, but never seems to balance all of them gracefully. The detective story is just too clunky to feel really thrilling, the jokes are mostly OK but rely on the same few shock value tricks to really be hilarious.

The film’s climax felt incredibly thin, and there’s a major reveal—well, one wrapped inside another really—that feels more like a surprise that comes out of nowhere than a well-earned payoff. If The Sixth Sense is the gold standard for well-earned payoffs, it’s because M. Night Shyamalan spent the entire story hinting at the thing you find out is true at the end. It’s satisfying to think that if you were paying really close attention, you might have known. The Happytime Murders reveal wasn’t set up, and there’s no chance in hell anyone could’ve seen any of it coming, so it feels more like a hastily patched together shortcut (this is why people are still angry at the last season of LOST, by the way).

In the end, I hope these execs at STX made their money back (if you’re reading this guys, I’m still holding my breath waiting to hear back about my script. Did you get my emails?). Not because this one was so good, but because the premise and the tone are promising enough that they deserve a re-do. If this turns into a cult movie, then there’ll be a really good remake in 2045 when Hollywood is on its inevitable 2010s remake kick and laughing at our clumsy politics. My son and I will take his kids to see it.

{2 out of 5 stars}

**This review first appeared in print on page 11 of issue #273 (Aug. 29 – Sept. 12, 2018)**