As I was watching the sweetly good-natured but somewhat superficial 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was left wondering if there could be a big screen story on minister-turned-children’s TV host Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers.” Was there enough material to open up this kind, affirming, gentle man into a three-dimensional character worthy of a deep dive? I’m still unsure after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks as Rogers. The filmmakers made the conscious decision to construct a fictional narrative of family strife between a father (Chris Cooper) and his son, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer. Fred Rogers begins as an assignment for Lloyd and becomes the change agent, pushing Lloyd, in the gentlest and most empathetic manner, to reflect on his anger over his father’s abandonment and to work through his feelings and potentially forgive the old man. Like the PBS star, the movie is sweet and optimistic and gentle and just a little bit boring. The film follows a pretty strict formula of catharsis, and while it works it doesn’t make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feel more than a TV-movie plot attached to a malnourished Fred Rogers biopic. I understand the storytelling difficulties of trying to make a soft-spoken man who isn’t given to long-winded speeches a starring role, so it makes sense that his presence would be a catalyst for a family in crisis, basically serving as therapist. Hanks is fitting and affecting, and once again I feel like there are glimmers of a more complex man underneath the persona we’ll never be treated to in any big screen examination, like about his struggles raising his own children, his crisis of relevancy late in life. The majority of the movie is a father/son story that is well acted and pretty much fine, and “pretty much fine” is a perfect description of the film as a whole. It’s nothing you’ll regret seeing and it will generally be uplifting and sincere, but it’s basically a 108-minute greeting card.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Happytime Murders asks one question on repeat: is something inherently funny just because a puppet does it? As I feared from the marketing, this is strictly a one-joke movie, and that joke being the entire concept of puppets behaving badly.
In a world where puppets and humans live side-by-side, Private Investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is investigating a series of grisly murders targeting the stars of a popular children’s sitcom. His ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), is forced to work with Phillips as the bodies and felt pile up. Together they trace the killer amid seedy drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, and criminals, all of them puppets.
For a depressing majority of the running time, the jokes are simply puppets swearing or puppets being randy. Very rarely will there be more thought given to the gags and setups. This reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted wherein too much of the comedy was centered on a teddy bear doing things we don’t normally associate a teddy bear doing. A puppet simply dropping an F-bomb is not a joke, just as a random person dropping an F-bomb is not a joke without some degree of setup and/or context. A puppet smoking is not funny on its own. A puppet drinking is not funny on its own. This is lazy writing that falls back on its surface-level shock value to compensate for the paucity of actual comedy. Too many jokes fizzle on screen, drawing at best the occasional generous chuckle. While you’re watching The Happytime Murders, you’re quite conscious of the fact that it should be funnier. You can feel the desperation on screen and the disappointment. I kept thinking, “Why did they settle for that joke? Why aren’t they doing more with the possibilities of their premise? Oh great, now it’s a joke about balls.” An R-rated puppet cop movie starring Melissa McCarthy should not be this uninspired.
Let’s tackle one scene emblematic of the film’s best assets and its shortcomings. Early in the first act, our puppet P.I. visits a puppet porn store/theater/film set. As soon as he enters, the curtain is pulled back and we see an octopus vigorously milking a cow’s udders, milky geysers freely spraying everywhere amid giddy cries. It’s a memorable visual with obvious sexual connotations and it’s one of the better moments to convey some degree of thought as far as developing the world of puppets. But then the scene just keeps going without any new development or complication. And then it keeps going. And then you realize that the filmmakers tapped out with the visual and had nothing else. The sequence at the porn store/theater/film set keeps sliding in more debauchery, especially with clips from an array of fetish films, a notable example being a fireman whipped by a Dalmatian dominatrix. Then in short order it becomes a murder scene and the fluff flies everywhere. Once again it becomes readily apparent how poorly handled the development process was with this film. There are puppets fighting, puppets doing drugs, puppets even having sex, but are there comic scenarios here? Infrequently. Without better crafting, the shock value naturally loses its impact and then the film gives up. It’s front loaded with the most memorable transgressions, and then it settles into a fairly mediocre cop movie that you have to remind yourself is a comedy because… puppets?
Instead, what the viewer gets is pretty much a standard cop movie with some film noir elements emphasized as reference. There is some half-hearted commentary about discrimination against puppets and how they’re seen as second-class citizens (like Bright). This too is dropped after the first act and the movie settles into a second-rate potboiler. If you remove the presence of puppets, too many scenes don’t even present humor. It’s more a cop movie than it is a comedy, and that realization perplexed and disappointed me. The lazy, crude sexual humor is a crutch they return to, though with diminished returns, as another attempt to jolt the lagging movie to life. It’s a tedious affair where the imagination feels capped. You’ll likely be reminded, as I was constantly, of the brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which tackled film noir tropes and cross-human integration. The difference is that Roger Rabbit thoroughly thought out its characters, plot, world, and satire, and I consider it to be one of the best-written films of all time. With The Happytime Murders, it has to resort to a Basic Instinct legs-crossing gag twice in 2018. This movie desperately needed a few more drafts from better skilled comedy writers to have more entertaining jokes than “puppet does non-puppet stuff.”
McCarthy (Life of the Party) is drifting on autopilot, desperately looking for ways to make this enterprise funnier. Her improv intuition runs into conflict with the simple nature that puppeteering demands a lot of preparation, so there are less off-script riffs. This is your standard brash, profane, ball-busting McCarthy performance we’ve gotten to know but there’s not a character here. Even in the realm of simplistic cop movie tropes, she’s still never more than the irritable partner who develops a begrudging respect. There is one interesting aspect to her character that the film does so little with. In a flashback, we see that she was critically injured in the line of duty and had to have an emergency puppet liver donation. The only thing ever done with this is the allowance that McCarthy is now able to snort puppet drugs that would ordinarily kill humans. That is it. There’s not even a joke related to this fact. It’s another example of the film’s deficiency of creativity.
The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie that has far too little imagination. The lewd vulgarity gets boring and becomes indicative of the lazy writing all around, the mere appearance of anything naughty meant to goose the audience into thinking they’re watching something really transgressive and provocative. The novelty wears off pretty quickly. Maya Rudolph as a cheerful secretary and the behind-the-scenes end credits were the best parts. What they’re really watching is a mediocre cop movie strung together with the flimsiest of genre tropes and a scant chuckle. Without better comedic writing and setups, you’re stuck with the story, and that’s not a good decision. This is a witless movie that doesn’t deserve its premise and is a waste of everyone’s time. At my preview screening, I could hear a child’s voice behind me and thought, “Oh my, a parent actually brought their child to see this movie? Did they not know?” That child never should have been in that theater, and not because of the raunchy content, but because that child deserved a better movie experience from their parent, a figure of trust.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The MPAA is mad, plain and simple. It’s an organization intended to rate movies so our wee ones don’t stumble into something not intended for their virgin eyes. They also have a long history of haggling with filmmakers over ratings and the necessary cuts to ensure a commercial rating. And, in their eyes, puppet sex was deemed too indecent. You see, the MPAA initially gave the all-puppet action movie Team America: World Police, the new film from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, an NC-17 for an extended scene of two marionettes engaging in enough sexual positions to make a G.I Joe blush. However, we’re talking about puppets, people! Puppets! They’re not even anatomically correct. Does anyone find it crazy that a governing board says watching two dolls bang together in “simulated sex” (is there any other kind with puppets?) is inappropriate for all ages under 17? Surely, if the MPAA is to be eventually reformed, this will be Exhibit A.
Team America is an elite team that fights terrorists and police the globe in red, white, and blue helicopters, jets, and flying limos (the team logo is a bald eagle with the earth in its beak). The team leader Spottswoode recruits Broadway actor Gary, star of the musical Lease (key song: “Everyone has AIDS”), because they need someone to pretend to be a terrorist and flush out their secret plan. Gary is reluctant at first but agrees to join the team.
Team America flies to Paris and Cairo to battle terrorists. They snuff the terrorists, but world monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Sphinx get lost among the collateral damage. Things look promising for Team America, and Gary expresses feelings for Lisa, a blonde psychologist haunted by the loss of a teammate and a lover.
Terrorists strike the Panama Canal in retaliation, and a group of celebrities led by Alec Baldwin condemn Team America. Michael Moore, with hotdog in each hand, protests outside Team America’s headquarters. In these moments of disarray, we learn the true source of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and brains behind the attacks is North Korean dictator Kim Jon Il, who has a plan for “9/11 times 2,358.”
While not reaching the satiric highs of the South Park movie, Team America is a political movie that lambastes both sides of the coin. This has been a very heavy year for political films, from leftist documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Hunting of a President and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, to more subtle jabs at the current administration (the very Cheney-like VP of The Day After Tomorrow), to more obvious indictments (the stuttering, axiom-loving dumbbell candidate in John Sayles’ Silver City). So in a year bursting to the seams with political screeds, it’s quite refreshing to have a movie that lampoons both the Right and the Left.
Team America satirizes the arrogant, shoot first ask later, cavalier foreign policy America has been accused of (“We’re going to bring democracy to you if it kills you.”). The film also criticizes Hollywood celebrities who feel that their uninformed, unsolicited opinions are germane to the political process. In the end, it’s the celebrities who get the worst of the beating (Matt Damon appears to be, um, challenged). Parker and Stone shrewdly satirize pretentiousness and ego, no matter which side it falls upon. They lose their focus as the film enters its final gory act, instead resorting to garish ways of killing puppets.
Team America has a good one-two combination with its political punch, but where it really shines is the knockout it delivers to bombastic Jerry Bruckheimer action films. This is a delirious send-up of a wide array of action movie clichés, including team members and their secret crushes as well as their hidden traumas. Characters will fight or die in slow-motion for dramatic effect. Characters will all have some special talent that will come into play at an important moment. Kim Jon Il has a typical villain lair, including large shark tanks and trap doors. When a character dies in the opening sequence he mutters the line, “I feel so… cold[.” Hilarious! There’s even an entire training montage set to a song called, “Montage” (sample lyric: “Show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what’s going on!/ And with every shot show just a little improvement – to show it all would take too long!/ That’s called a montage!/ MONTAGE!/ Even Rocky had a montage!/ MONTAGE! “). There’s also a love song all about Pearl Harbor sucking as a movie.
Like all the other films by Parker and Stone, Team America is a robust musical. The songs aren’t as sharp as the ditties from the South Park movie, but they’re still quite amusing. The Team America theme is a rousing anthem called “America, Fuck Yeah!” which is a perfect example of the film’s simultaneous mixture of the profane and the brilliant. Later in the film, when Team America is taking a public backlash, there’s a somber remix of the theme that’s even funnier.
Some things are just funnier because of the limitations of puppets. Watching two marionettes try to fight is hilarious, because they really do nothing but kick their legs and limply slap each other. Before Team America, I never realized how funny it was just to watch marionettes walk. They’re so awkward and jumpy, that just seeing them step from side to side can put a smile on your face. When the music of Kill Bill comes onscreen, and the puppets walk in slow dramatic fashion, it’s even more absurd and funny.
Parker and Stone also have fun with self-awareness, like when they take Gary on a tour of the sights of Washington D.C. and he stands next to an actual tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. There’s also a Matrix parody that actually comes off as fresh. There’s a giddiness to watching puppets swear, fight, vomit, stagger drunk, and even do the nasty. It’s a gimmick that doesn’t get old.
This is also one terrific looking movie. The sets are massively intricate and the photography by Bill Pope (who did shoot the Matrix films) bathes the proceedings in beautiful mixtures of light and dark. There may be moments you forget that what you’re watching are miniatures. It is filmed to look like a typical action movie. The music is a spot-on parody of action films, with its heaviness on flutes when the villain is around, to the foreign lady mournfully singing during scenes of tragedy. There’s fantastic craft and detail worked into Team America that I can unequivocally say Team America: World Police is the best looking, R-rated all-marionette musical action movie… ever.
Team America may be the funniest film of the year. There are some moments of drag, and sometimes less profanity would make certain punch lines better (unfunny homophobic jokes like the acronym F.A.G.), but the movie is a comedy that’s pee-your-pants funny. Team America is definitely not for kids (what kind of irresponsible parent assumes “puppets = for kids” and ignores an R-rating?). Because of the equal opportunity satire, this may end up being a movie that conservatives and liberals both claim to be their own. For fans of erudite satire, crude humor, and puppet sex, Team America will be a blast. Make sure to stay throughout the end credits to hear a special closing song not in the film.
Nate’s Grade: B