It's not unusual for an actor to take risks when it comes to selecting movie roles. But unfortunately for Melissa McCarthy, whose recent Muppet-adjacent film made more news for incurring the wrath of "Sesame Street" than for its box-office performance, the risk didn't pay off.
"The Happytime Murders," directed by Jim Henson's son Brian, follows a human detective (McCarthy) and her puppet partner (voiced by Bill Barretta) as they attempt to solve the murders of puppets who once starred on a popular TV show. The comedy is overloaded with raunchy humour - the trailer features, among other things, puppets fornicating - and flopped with critics and moviegoers alike. Deemed "painfully unfunny" and "a joyless, soulless slog," it debuted this past weekend at just $10.1 million - a career-low wide release for McCarthy.
"A few critics are calling it the worst movie of the year," Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote in his review. "Unfair! 'The Happytime Murders,' the R-rated look at a serial killer running wild in a puppet-populated L.A., has what it takes to be a contender for worst of the decade."
A brutal assessment, but especially so for a movie whose lead actress' career has already taken a number of hits over the past few years. "The Happytime Murders" premiered a few months after McCarthy's mom-goes-to-college flop, "Life of the Party," which has a 38 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie's tagline asked viewers to "give life the old college try," but critics, dismayed by lacklustre writing, couldn't make the same request. McCarthy co-wrote the screenplay with the director, her husband Ben Falcone.
And let's not forget 2016's "The Boss," which features McCarthy as a wealthy motivational speaker who lands in jail for insider trading and, after her release, moves in with her former assistant (Kristen Bell). Like the others, it features an interesting enough story - written again by star McCarthy and director Falcone, along with Steve Mallory - but fails to tell it well. Actually, maybe we should forget the movie, as well as McCarthy and Falcone's first (and also bad) collaboration: 2014's "Tammy," which the New Yorker's Richard Brody called "an object lesson in the art of directing, which is all it would have taken to turn this near-miss into an instant classic. Though that may be true of most mediocre movies."
Yes, there is a theme here. The Washington Post's Stephanie Merry noted when "The Boss" premiered that McCarthy's weakest films are her collaborations with Falcone, while her strongest tend to be with Paul Feig. The latter is responsible for directing the wildly successful "Bridesmaids," which earned McCarthy an Oscar nomination in 2012 and transformed her from a favourite among fans of "Gilmore Girls" and "Mike and Molly" into a bankable Hollywood star. Feig also directed McCarthy in "The Heat," a box-office sensation co-starring Sandra Bullock; "Spy," which, at 94 per cent, is still McCarthy's highest-rated project on Rotten Tomatoes; and the much-buzzed-about "Ghostbusters" reboot.
McCarthy and Falcone didn't write "The Happytime Murders," but another theme emerges from its failure: No matter how many disastrous roles the actress takes on, we never write her off. And with good reason - critics across the board agree that the movie wastes McCarthy's obvious talent.
New York's David Edelstein wrote that he didn't "have the heart to say a bad word about McCarthy. You can sense when an actor's peripheral vision includes the nearest EXIT sign." IndieWire's David Ehrlich stated that she "can do the potty-mouthed shtick in her sleep" and instead criticized the jokes her character gets saddled with. Slate's Inkoo Kang blames McCarthy's agent for the mess, referring to the actress' scripted lines as "an indignity that makes you wonder when she's going to fire her agent each time they're called back."
McCarthy is the ninth highest-paid actress in the world for a reason. Clearly, she can do much, much better. And she soon might - she will take on a rare dramatic role in Marielle Heller's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" as Lee Israel, a once-acclaimed celebrity biographer who became a literary forger after her career stalled. The film is tellingly scheduled to hit theatres in mid-October, right before Oscar season begins.