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Schultz reviews: "A-X-L" and "The Happytime Murders"

Schultz reviews: "A-X-L" and "The Happytime Murders"

By Carl Schultz

“A-X-L” Distributed by Global Road Entertainment, 100 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Aug. 24:

In a motion picture season which seems preoccupied with the relationship between humans and their canine companions, “A-X-L” is probably the most unusual . . . as well as the most preposterous and inaccessible. 

While last week’s “Alpha” examined the origins of the dynamic between man and man’s best friend and last month’s “Dog Days” was a lighthearted depiction of present interrelations between human and beast, “A-X-L” awkwardly and joylessly purports to predict one possible future: The robot dog.

A-X-L –– the letters stand for Attack, Exploration and Logistics –– is the experimental prototype for a top-secret robotic dog, created by military contractors to assist and protect the battlefield soldiers of the tomorrow. After running away from his creators, A-X-L is found hiding in an abandoned government junk yard by a teenaged motocross racer who’s just been sabotaged and abandoned by his competitors. Unaware he’s being observed by military technicians, the teen begins to bond with the mechanical dog.

“A-X-L” turns out to be a moderate science fiction saga so filled with inconsistencies and implausible twists and plot developments that logic and believability is abandoned shortly after the robotic dog first appears, about 20 minutes into the picture. After that the narrative shifts awkwardly back and forth between teen romance, revenge drama, military conspiracy, science fiction and finally to horror, all the while hardly pausing to allow the viewer a chance to catch up with all the plot twists and genre-jumps.

Receiving an approval rating of just 22 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and 31 percent from Metacritic, “A-X-L” is a picture which usually would premiere in the discount bin at Walmart, on a disc with nine or ten equally obscure misfires. Playing in 1,710 theaters across North America, the picture earned a little less than $3 million in box office receipts during its opening weekend, enough to score ninth place on Box Office Mojo’s Top Ten list. But don’t look for it to stay there long.

“A-X-L” is rated PG for violence and adult themes.


“The Happytime Murders” Distributed by STX Entertainment, 91 Minutes, Rated R, Released Aug. 24:

Fasten your seatbelt and hold onto your hat: The new animated picture ”The Happytime Murders” does for Jim Henson’s beloved Muppets what “Last Tango in Paris” did for Marlon Brando and “Slapshot” did for Paul Newman -– it breaks wide open the taboo surrounding their popular family entertainment mythology, and reduces a genuine American institution, almost a part of folklore, to the wide, wonderful world of R-rated adult entertainment.

To be sure, Kermit and Miss Piggy and Elmo and the gang are nowhere to be seen, and the word “Muppet” appears nowhere in the picture, including the dialogue, the credits or the advertising. But prominently mentioned in the press materials distributed by STX Entertainment is the fact that the 125 puppets used in the picture -– some 40 of which were created specifically for the movie, including the leading character of private detective Phil Phillips –– were designed by the Jim Henson Creature Workshop.

As anyone knows who’s been alive during the last 50 or so years, the name Jim Henson is to The Muppets what the name John Fogerty is to Creedence Clearwater Revival –– one barely exists without the other. In fact, “The Happytime Murders” began development with the Jim Henson Company, and was directed by Brian Henson, the oldest son of Jim and Jane Henson, the creators of The Muppets. 

The younger Henson was also a longtime Muppet performer, as well as the director of such past successes as 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island” from 1996, and the producer or executive of several more Muppet enterprises. More than being a chip off the old block, Brian Henson seems logically to have inherited the reigns of the Muppet entertainment empire.

Not to worry -– ”The Happytime Murders” with its R rating won’t be seen by many youngsters, at least if its producers, distribution company, theater chains and conscientious parents of small children have anything to say about it. At times during screenings, the most entertaining part of the picture is the viewer’s wondering how in the world the MPAA allowed it to escape into theaters with an R rating instead of an NC-17, or even an X.

If you can imagine for a moment filmmaker Mel Brooks being hired by the producers of the National Lampoon comedies to direct a film parody of children’s movies, the results will look a lot like “The Happytime Murders.” Defying easy description even by genre, “The Happyland Murders” is just so unbelievably, almost astonishingly crude and tasteless that viewers will likely spend as much time gasping in shock as they’ll spend laughing or being entertained. That’s not a compliment. And this picture’s not “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

Set in a Los Angeles in which humans and puppets coexist and intermingle, in “The Happytime Murders” disgraced police detective Phil Phillips, a puppet now working as a hard-luck private investigator, seeks redemption for the fatal mistake which ended his police career. 

The down-on-his-luck Phillips is hired to investigate the systematic murders of cast members from “The Happytime Gang,” a hit television comedy from the 1980s poised to regain its popularity through syndication, as well as earn a pile of money in reissue fees. The detective needs to collaborate with his former police partner, the human LAPD police detective Connie Edwards, when his efforts to solve the Happytime murders are complicated by his association with one of the cast members, and then by being named the prime suspect in the crimes.

With her open, animated face, guileless eyes, and pert button of a nose, actress Melissa McCarthy among all the performers toiling presently in the motion picture industry should probably be the most inconspicuous in performing among The Muppets. That’s neither a criticism nor a comment on the performer’s physical appearance. 

Rather, McCarthy as an actress maintains the enviable quality of being something of a blank slate, with a capacity to deliver enormously entertaining performances augmented by her ability to animate herself or her expressions, to wring every possible nuance from her expressive voice, and to don makeup and prosthetic appliances as necessary to achieve a comedic or dramatic goal.

McCarthy’s turns as former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on television’s “Saturday Night Live,” for example, were sidesplitting: When McCarthy would appear as Spicer, her natural features augmented by makeup and prosthetics, the audience recognized the character of Spicer almost instantly, while identifying McCarthy took a second or two longer. And when the audience realized the performer impersonating the male Spicer was the female McCarthy, the delighted applause was sustained by the audacity and outrageousness of the performance.

Ironically, McCarthy’s characterization in “The Happytime Murders” as police detective Connie Edwards seems the least natural among the other performers, which is to say the puppets. The actress often appears uncomfortable, possibly as a result of the caustic and often-obscene dialogue. While McCarthy in the past has delivered colorful lines as required by a script -– and has remained both funny and appealing while doing it -– the actress has never led with it, or placed adult humor front-and-center in a performance, as is required by this picture.

McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone are said to have contributed an uncredited revision of the screenplay of “The Happytime Murders” to widen its appeal after actresses such as Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl passed on the Edwards role. It might be an accurate guess that removing some of the blue language from Edwards’ dialogue was part of that process. McCarthy’s and Falcone’s On the Day Productions is also listed among the companies producing the picture, as is Henson Alternative, or HA!, the Jim Henson-created company specializing in entertainment of a more mature nature.

Also appearing among the performers is McCarthy’s old Saturday Night Live colleague and frequent film collaborator Maya Rudolph. Rudolph as a performer has a talent for spontaneous flights of comedic improvisation as well as an ability to work her way through changing characterizations with the breathtaking dexterity of Robin Williams. 

As Bubbles, the loyal secretary to the detective Phil Phillips -– Rudolph’s Bubbles is to Phillips what Lee Patrick’s Effie as to Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Space in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” -– Rudolph contributes to possibly the most entertaining scene in “The Happytime Murders,” as she and McCarthy search a suspect’s home for clues. This sequence alone in the 91-minute picture contains the sense of playful, affectionate silliness sorely missed throughout the rest of the picture. The scene is also unique in its use of neither caustic humor nor adult dialogue.

Also in the human cast, a scruffy and insolent Joel McHale contributes a cameo role as an FBI agent dogging the investigation. Leslie David Baker, formerly of television’s “The Office,” appears as a LAPD lieutenant and Edwards’ superior on the police force, a performance which might be inspired by actor Frank McRae’s part in the classic 1982 cop movie “48 Hours.” And Elizabeth Banks plays a former flame of the puppet Phillips, the solitary human member of the cast of “The Happytime Gang.” 

Credited with the role of the puppet detective Phil Phillips, Bill Barretta contributes a generic voice performance as a hardened PI with a heart of gold. The puppet itself during early scenes is reminiscent of actor Michael Richards in his incarnation as Kramer on television’s “Seinfeld,” and actor Michael Connors as “Mannix” in later scenes, as the character begins to regain his dignity.

But the essence of “The Happytime Murders” is the novelty of The Muppets working blue, using foul language up to and exceeding a frequent use of F-bombs (and worse), and even appearing in scenes which explicitly emphasize -– gasp! -– their sexuality. The screenplay by Todd Berger manages to work into the picture’s narrative a graphic recreation of actress Sharon Stone’s infamous leg-crossing scene in 1992’s “Basic Instinct.” The resulting shot is a real eye-opener, and is actually so essential to the film’s resolution that it’s shown twice. 

“The Happytime Murders” contains images you can never unsee, and should actually feature a warning that you’ll never look at Jim Henson’s lovable Muppets in quite the same way ever, ever again. As they say, you never really miss something until it’s gone. This picture is the reason the Walt Disney organization protects its copyrights with the ferocity of a lioness guarding her cubs.

Interestingly, the link between “The Happytime Murders” and Henson’s Muppets, and their association with the perennial children’s show “Sesame Street,” broadcast on PBS stations across the U.S., apparently now extends to that educational show’s objection to the movies advertising slogan: “No Sesame, All Street.” 

The Sesame Workshop, the company behind the epochal children’s show, filed a lawsuit against STX Entertainment for using their trademark in advertising for “The Happytime Murder,” arguing that associating their program with an adult comedy smears the reputation of the show, as well as confuses youngsters. The Sesame Workshop’s lawsuit was rejected by the presiding judge, and thrown out of court. 

Expected by STX Entertainment to gross up to $15 million during its opening weekend, “The Happytime Murders” instead earned a little more than $10 million, the lowest opening weekend gross to date for a Melissa McCarthy-starring picture. 

Critically, “The Happytime Murders” is not faring well, earning an approval rating of just 22 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and 27 percent from Metacritic. Audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture a grade of C-minus, also the lowest grade ever assigned to a McCarthy picture by that service. There’s presently no word on the opinions of Statler and Waldorf, the two wisecracking elderly guys sitting in the balcony on television’s “The Muppet Show.”

Rated R for non-stop adult humor and graphic and explicit scenes of a sexual nature, “The Happytime Murders” is emphatically not for the kiddies.

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