The Happytime Murders (2018)

Brian Henson (son of Jim) is currently being steamrolled by pro critics in his jump from directing children’s puppetry films like Muppet Christmas Carol & Muppet Treasure Island to his first feature intended for adult audiences. Most of the negativity for Henson’s The Happytime Murders (as indicated by its 27 score on Metacritic & its 21% on the dreaded Tomatometer) seems to be framed around the jaded, seen-it-all attitude that his film’s central gimmick of raunchy Muppets humor is far from a brand-new novelty, with Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles serving as the most often-cited comparison point. That critique feels a little empty to me, as Feebles is far from the only raunchy Muppets-But-For-Adults media setting a precedent for Henson’s film. Wonder Showzen, Greg the Bunny, Crank Yankers, and TV Funhouse have all mined the Dirty Muppets gimmick for “mature” humor post-Feebles. Better yet, Meet the Feebles itself was also preceded by over a decade by the porno-comedy Let My Puppets Come. Henson’s latest is not a Feebles knockoff so much as it’s part of an ever-expanding genre of adult puppetry, a subclass of comedy distinct enough to have its own Wikipedia page. In fact, Henson himself has participated in this genre before as executive producer of the (underseen, underrated) political punditry spoof show No, You Shut Up!, which features puppets & performers recycled & repurposed in his latest critical debacle; the unexpected joy of seeing those puppets again was admittedly a huge part of why I’m soft on The Happytime Murders overall. No, it’s not a debt to Meet the Feebles that tempers the successes of Henson’s first feature intended for adults. It’s the debt that it owes to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that really weighs the film down (and also tarnishes Roger Rabbit’s memory in retrospect).

In Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 comedy/special effects showcase Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, live-action humans & 2D cartoons interact in an alternate-history Old Hollywood past were the toons are seen as second-class citizens. Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders unwisely picks up that same dynamic in its Muppet & human-cohabitated LA, underlining the racial allegory of the Roger Rabbit conceit for empty, uncomfortable political satire. Melissa McCarthy is tasked to hold down the Bob Hoskins role as the too-old-for-this-shit cop with open, callous bigotry for the puppets she must interact with while working her beat. As demonstrated by Max Landis’s recent critical disaster Bright, this Roger Rabbit blueprint for racial allegory divorced from actual racial identity has not aged especially well since Zemeckis’s film was released three decades ago (at least not in the hands of white artists interpreting POC experiences). While McCarthy is reluctantly paired with a puppet partner to investigate a string of puppet murders and learns that not all puppets are so bad along the way, the audience has no choice but to squirm through each political implication of that overriding allegory in a way that detracts from the film’s central mission: comedy. Sometimes these political missteps are uncomfortable in a presumably unintentional way, like when a rabbit puppet is “humorously” indicated to have dozens of illegitimate children (because rabbits breed a lot; it’s in everyone’s best interest to read further into it). Sometimes it’s deliberately uncomfortable in an #edgy way, like when a homeless puppet performs a minstrel tap-dance for humans’ spare change on an L.A. street corner or another has their blue felt bleached to appear more like their fleshy oppressors. In either instance, the conceit is a clumsy misfire that says way more about the failed legacy of Roger Rabbit than it does about Meet the Feebles.

There are a couple Roger Rabbit-isms that The Happytime Murders does pick up to great success, however; its jokes are often funny & its noir pastiche plot makes for a genuinely engaging story. If nothing else, my first-act guess about the puppet-murderer’s identity was only half-correct, so I have some unexpected respect for the film’s ability to stage an engaging mystery. That’s not typically what I look for in a comedy, though. I’m looking to laugh, which is not at all a problem with the talent on hand: McCarthy, who is always a hoot; Elizabeth Banks bringing back some of that scenery-chewing Power Rangers energy; The Office’s Leslie David Baker, playing the exasperated police chief role he was born for; Maya Rudolph doing her best impression of Annie Potts’s 1940s secretary schtick from the original-flavor Ghostbusters. Then there’s the puppetry itself, which applies the level of artistry you’d expect from the Henson family name to novelty sex imagery like cow udders being rhythmically milked, Dalmatian dominatrices working the business end of whips, and a puppet ejaculating entire cans’ worth of silly string. The worst I can say about The Happytime Murders’s raunchy puppet humor is that a few of its jokes are openly “borrowed” from outside sources (particularly the line “Does this smell like chloroform to you?” and a bit about sewn-shut assholes lifted wholesale from a Wu-Tang skit), but that’s nothing extraordinary given the film’s overall commitment to schtick. Humor is highly subjective so there’s no accounting for what people might find funny or too old-hat in the picture, but if you have a general appreciation for the adult puppet genre (or think a ZAZ-style spoof of the noir template might be worth a chuckle) the movie delivers the dumb-comedy goods.

The Happytime Murders is a three-star comedy with a half-star critical reputation, which is not at all uncommon with this shamelessly lowbrow end of raunch & schtick. The central allegory in its human-puppet racial relations is a clumsy embarrassment, but its general sense of raunchy Muppet humor is good for a goof, especially if Meet the Feebles isn’t your only comparison point for the adult puppetry genre, as they both benefit from a lager perspective than a 1:1 comparison. This is especially true for anyone who felt betrayed by the untimely demise of No, You Shut Up! (which was tragically canceled months before our last presidential election cycle, to my personal horror). As much as I enjoyed the film more than most audiences seemed to, it never made me as happy with a sex joke as it did with an incorporation of a discarded puppet or vocal performance from that show.

-Brandon Ledet

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2017)

I don’t often get excited for modern animation. The flat, rounded-out, overly precise digital designs of CG-animated movies, including well-respected behemoths of the medium like Disney & Pixar, are largely uninspiring to me, even if they illustrate a well-told story. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is the perfect antidote to these troubled, CG animation times. Jumping from Fantagraphics-published graphic novels to feature-length filmmaking, visual artist Dash Shaw overwhelms the senses in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea with a tactile, unnecessarily complex visual style that feels like the philosophical opposite of modern CG animation doldrums. Shaw’s loosely sketched figures navigate blindingly colorful backgrounds of ever-shifting multimedia collage, recalling the more psychedelic impulses that invade the black & white stick figure frames of Don Herzfeld’s work or the short-form experiments you might catch in a late-night haze on Adult Swim. This eccentric visual design is paired with an over-the-top, go-for-broke plot (spelled out plainly in the title), but is also tempered by a laid-back, juvenile attitude that calmly strolls through its dizzying whirlpool of ambitious ideas. In a perfect world, a film this visually stunning & naturally cool would gather at least a cult audience through its challenge to the inhuman computer graphics style that typically guides modern animation aesthetics. Instead, My Entire High School Singing into the Sea had a single-week, single-screen theatrical run in New Orleans before disappearing for nearly a full year and then popping up on Netflix to little fanfare. Dash Shaw dared to leave his grubby little fingerprints all over this messy, overly-ambitious debut, delivering the film that modern animation needs, but no audience seems to want.

Jason Schwartzman stars as an unpopular jerk of a high school student who wastes his energy overachieving as a “journalist” for the school newspaper, making this film feel somewhat like an unsanctioned Rushmore sequel. Since he’s both a social nuisance and a known blowhard, his warnings to the student body that the school (which was built both cliffside and on a fault line) is at risk of crumbling at the slightest earthquake are an act of crying wolf. Early in the runtime, this foretold earthquake knocks the entire high school into the adjacent sea and the majority of the film is a Titanic-like race for survival as the building sinks into the water. Schwartzman’s prickly protagonist is joined on his voyage to safety by an impressive voice cast of tagalongs: Reggie Watts & Maya Rudolph as fellow newspaper nerds, Lena Dunham as a Tracy Flick-like over-achiever, and (the MVP of the movie) Susan Sarandon as a tough-as-nails lunch lady who acts as the group’s only muscle. Each speak in hushed, flat voices, incredibly calm in the face of their surroundings burning, crumbling and flooding in ever-worsening mayhem. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a laid-back irreverent comedy, but it does not shy away from the Hellish displays of widespread destruction its over-the-top premise naturally inspires. Our ragtag group of aggressively casual, self-obsessed teens (and their remarkably buff lunch lady) are subjected to the horrors of libraries aflame, flesh-eating miniature sharks, haunted locker rooms, and makeshift dystopian societies that deify social popularity to determine their leaders. It’s all very goofy & flippantly nonchalant about the panic that defines its borders, but it’s also a perilous journey to safety & rescue littered with the blood, guts, limbs, and severed heads of the less-fortunate students who don’t make the cut.

The simplicity of that story is a necessity, as it allows room for the much busier visual assault that obliterates eyeballs for the entirety of the runtime. Before the picture starts, a title card warns of potential risks for inducing photosensitive epilepsy. It becomes immediately apparent why, as just a character running to catch a school bus in the opening scene is a layered, video game-inspired adventure of visual hyperactivity. Dash Shaw’s debut movie is bursting with weirdo experiments that push animation as a medium by remixing older, more hands-on methods into new, stunning arrangements. It’s like the mashup DJ equivalent of a modern animated feature in that way, except that its adoption of past, rudimentary techniques are transformative, not nostalgic. Crayon scribbles, amateur sketchbook doodling, and Prince Achmed-style cutouts supply its elemental building blocks, but their cumulative, layered effect is something much more impressively complex than those D.I.Y. tactics imply. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a simple, irreverent comedy about teen brats winging their way through an absurd, impossible crisis. It’s also a bold vision for how animation can evolve in meaningful, tactile ways without fully succumbing to 100% computerization. And if you don’t personally enjoy what Shaw accomplishes in the picture, don’t worry. His dialogue promises, “Next time I’ll water it down so that it’s shitty and more popular!”

-Brandon Ledet

Life of the Party (2018)

In official terms, there hasn’t been an SNL Movie since MacGruber (perhaps the artistic height of the medium) tragically died in the theaters in 2010. Long gone are the days where recurring, one-note Saturday Night Live characters like Stuart Smalley & Mary Katherine Gallagher were allowed to carry a feature-length comedy on their own. The modern SNL movie is a low-key affair, manifesting in pictures like Popstar, Sisters, and Ghostbusters (2016), where the cast is stacked with chummy SNL vets, but the premise was born outside the show. Melissa McCarthy movies are an even more rarified breed within that modern tradition, as McCarthy herself was never quite an official member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She may have hosted & cameoed so many times on the show that she seems like a natural extension of the staff and she may have started her comedy career in The Groundlings with professional besties Kristen Wiig & Maya Rudolph, but McCarthy is an SNL guest player at best (like Steve Martin in the 1970s). What’s curious about that is the way her own comedy features (especially the ones she’s collaborated on with husband/fellow Groundlings-vet Ben Falcone) feel like the lowkey, unofficial SNL comedies that most closely recall the brand’s 1990s “Every recurring character gets a movie!” heyday. Reinforced by the presence of SNL vets Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, and (current cast member) Heidi Gardner, the latest McCarthy-Falcone joint feels exactly like the 1990s model for the SNL Movie, only with the absurdity turned slightly down to make room for saccharine sentimentality (something McCarthy can’t help but bring to the screen between her violent bursts of slapstick). That comedic aesthetic is a kind of risk, as the classic SNL Movie is only beloved by a hopelessly dorky few, but I personally find it to be an endearing comfort, a return to the sweetly dumb movies I was raised on out of brand loyalty to SNL as an institution.

Playing a Midwestern 90s Mom character I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s been whipping out since The Groundlings, McCarthy stars as a middle-aged divorcee who enrolls back in college to finish a degree she abandoned for the sake of her family. As she crashes the frat & sorority party scene also inhabited by her college-senior daughter, the movie doesn’t shy away from its unavoidable similarities to the Roger Dangerfield classic Back to School. The relentless barrage of party sequences & studying montages almost make Life of the Party feel like another McCarthy-helmed, gender-flipped remake. That bawdy Dangerfield irreverence & fish-out-of-water social humor is also contrasted against a striking amount of sentimentality, however, as the movie focuses more on McCarthy’s inner journey as a woman who’s tired of being an emotional doormat than it does on her daughter’s initial horror at her presence (not to mention her sex drive). For the most part, she fits right in with the younger students, even being inducted into their sorority house as an honorary sister and finding herself a young boy-toy to wear out in the bedroom. Life of the Party is overlong, burdened by an inspo-pop soundtrack, and generally suffers from an improvisational looseness that should have spent a little more time simmering in the editing room, but I think most audiences’ biggest hurdle will be reconciling that overly earnest tone with expectations of gag-a-minute slapstick. This is a much more labored, sentimental piece than either Tammy or The Boss, the previous two McCarthy-Falcone collabs, but its sweetness isn’t necessarily a mood-killer if you’re willing to accept it as an essential part of the movie’s fabric. I still think the hedonistic, low-class excess of Tammy is the couple’s greatest collaboration to date, but Life of the Party’s warm blanket of Midwestern Mom energy has a charm of its own.

If you can withstand the crushing weight of its Hallmark sentimentality, Life of the Party also offers the simple joy of women being afforded space to be funny. In addition to the always-reliable McCarthy & Maya Rudolph, who bring a middle-aged severity to out-of-nowhere slapstick gags of explosions & crotch-shots, the movie also allows plenty of screentime for promising lesser-knowns. Heidi Gardner recalls the same nu-metal & mall goth battiness she often brings to her SNL sketches as McCarthy’s shut-in roommate. Gillian Jacobs (who should be starring in her own wide-release features by now) often runs away with the movie as coma survivor & sorority sister who drifts through life in an anarchic haze. There are many tonally sloppy reaction shots in Life of the Party that director Falcone should have paid much more attention to in the editing room, but Jacobs manages to turn her own into an art form, acting as an element of dazed chaos even when idling in the background. Her Love costar Jessie Ennis also shows promise as a relative newcomer, operating with a wide-eyed derangement as a sorority sister who wants to fit in at any cost. The way these women rally around McCarthy’s new-lease-on-life mom is so sweet it borders on surreality, affording Life of the Party a sustained, low-key joy even when specific jokes don’t land or a labored party sequence drags on into a tequila-drenched eternity. The joys of Life of the Party’s slapstick & absurdism require a patience with its saccharine earnestness & editing room looseness, especially in a year where we’ve seen that sweet/raunchy balance achieved so expertly in Blockers. I’m more than willing to put in the effort for this endearing of talent (especially from too-rarely-seen performers like Gardner & Jacobs), something I’m long familiar with as someone who was comedically raised on the SNL Movie in its heyday. I haven’t quite fallen for a McCarthy-Falcone joint with full enthusiasm since Tammy, but as long as they keep making them I’ll likely keep enjoying them. I’ve got to get my SNL Movie fix somewhere and I just don’t see a Laura Parsons or Chris Kirkpatrick movie arriving anytime soon, no matter how badly I want them.

-Brandon Ledet

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

There’s an alternate universe where Noah Baumbach’s films, with their manicured Wes Anderson visual palette and ensemble casts of talented actors both early & late in their respective careers, are a populist hit. In the universe we do live in, however, Baumbach’s films are more consistent crowd-splitters. Titles like The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Mistress America look like cutesy indie dramas from the outside, but harbor a strong, corrosive hatred for their own characters, revealing Baumbach to be much more of a misanthrope than he appears to be. The recent comedy Maggie’s Plan is an interesting window into this alternate timeline where Noah Baumbach’s works are actually the smart, breezy farces they’re advertised to be instead of comedic exercises in pitch black misanthropy (which I also enjoy just fine). Starring & directed by Baumbach collaborators (Greta Gerwig & Rebecca Miller, daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller), Maggie’s Plan is not at all a cutesy indie trifle. It still pokes fun at its characters and indulges in morally & emotionally uncomfortable romantic scenarios. It just does so without tail-spinning its audience into frustrated hatred of every personality presented onscreen. The film is much more interested in the complicated plots of Old Hollywood farces and the general quirks of human folly than tearing down the self-absorption & self-destructive ego of modern ennui. I can’t say it’s exactly a better film for it, but it’s certainly a kinder & more enjoyable one.

Greta Gerwig stars as a young East Coast Academic who wants to become a mother under her own terms, a plan that involves a sperm donation from a crazy-eyed hipster who’s made a career for himself as a “pickle entrepreneur” (just about the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard of). The plot is disrupted when Gerwig’s protagonist falls passionately in love with another East Coast Academic™, played by Ethan Hawke, (whom I somehow confused for Kevin Bacon for the opening few scenes). The problem is that he happens to be a married man. The dangerous sensation of this blossoming affair combines with several possible love triangle plots to threaten an eyeroll-worthy romcom yarn, but Maggie’s Plan is much smarter than anything I feared it might become. Instead of the complications of single mother pregnancy and the moral dilemmas presented by romantic jealousy, the movie tackles the ways love & desire are messy, with outcomes that cannot be controlled and the way romantic partners, especially men, can take their significant others for granted, treating them almost like an employee without giving it any thought. There’s no will-they-won’t-they series of missed connections and tangled misunderstandings here. Miller’s farce is much more about the way characters uncomfortable with loosening control over their messy personal lives have to learn to let go and let life happen naturally than it is about who they’ll be sleeping with by the time the credits roll.

Movies with this intimate of a narrative & limited visual scope obviously rely heavily on the strength of their cast to sell their charms and Maggie’s Plan is overloaded with talent. Gerwig does her usual thing, but with a much more endearing spin on her characters’ total lack of self-awareness. Hawke is perfectly cast as the smartest idiot in the room. They’re backed up by a long list of excellent bit players & single scene cameos: Bill Harder, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Hanna. And that’s not even mentioning Julianne Moore, who very nearly steals the show in an absurd caricature of European academic coldness. Of course, none of this talent would mean a thing without Miller’s superbly constructed script, which manages to feel intelligently assembled & well-considered in every moment while still working in punchlines as inane as “I don’t want you to have a baby with the pickle man.” There are a couple stray choices that make Maggie’s Plan feel distinct even as a small budget indie, including a time jump that completely upends its initial plot trajectory & a surprise over-abundance of 60s dancehall reggae on its soundtrack. It’s the cast Miller assembles and the ways her script arranges those chess pieces to craft a newfangled version of an Old Hollywood farce that makes the film worth a recommendation, though. It’s all intricately plotted stuff made to somehow feel like effortless charm.

It’s probably not at all fair of me to conjure Noah Baumbach’s name in this review, as Rebecca Miller has had a long, self-driven career long before recently joining forces with that divisive filmmaker. It’s likely that Gerwig’s presence is a lot of what recalls his work here. I really do think that anyone on the verge of liking Baumbach who finds his general misanthropy difficult to stomach would likely enjoy Maggie’s Plan, though. It’s just reminiscent enough of his storytelling style to draw the comparison, but so distinctly on its own wavelength that it won’t feel like an empty exercise for those who devotedly follow his career. I’m now curious myself to double back and watch some of Miller’s previous works to see if this is a vibe she’s always worked within. Maggie’s Plan at the very least proves her capable of turning small, familiar parts into memorably distinct, endearing pictures. It’s a lot rarer than it sounds.

-Brandon Ledet